BRUSSELS — Angry workers mounted mass street protests against spending cuts across Europe Wednesday, bringing cities to a halt, clashing with police and even ramming the gates of Ireland's parliament.
In Brussels, the heart of the European Union, tens of thousands of people from 30 countries joined the city's biggest march in a decade as riot police barricaded the EU headquarters against the backlash to brutal spending cuts.
Spain staged its first general strike since 2002 and thousands more also rallied in cities from Portugal to Poland, although leaders such as France's Nicolas Sarkozy pressed on with a "historic" attack on soaring overspending.
The focus of the protests was the Belgian capital, where a sea of marchers snaked past heavily guarded banks and designer stores to say "No to austerity".
Between 56,000 and more than 100,000 took part in the giant cortege that crossed half of the city, according to various sources, and police said 218 "troublemakers" were detained.
"We're here to say 'no' to the multiplying number of austerity plans, whether adopted by governments or by European institutions," said Bernard Thibault, head of the major CGT French trade union.
"Our message is to avoid adding an unprecedented social crisis to the financial crisis, with the workers paying the cost."
Stepping off buses from as far afield as Britain and Poland, or from mines in Germany, protesters said they had travelled to the EU's hub to show the human cost of public sector cuts.
"We've sat on a bus for two days and two nights to tell Europe this must stop," said Romanian policeman Ciobahu Ahgecih, citing a 25 percent wage cut, a pension freeze and the threat of 20,000 redundancies among officers.
"We are here to tell the EU it must slow down cuts," said German miner Markus Machmik, part of a group of 100 from the Ibbenbueren coal mine dressed in white from hard-hat to boots.
The protest was the biggest in the city since 2001 when 80,000 people took to the streets of the Belgian capital, and coincided with the release of details of a EU plan to fine governments in the 27-nation bloc that run up deficits.
"This is a crucial day for Europe," said John Monks, British general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation.
"Our governments, virtually all of them, are about to embark on solid cuts in public expenditures."
As Europe tries to clean up its post-recession books, the backlash has focused on feared vast numbers of public sector job cuts.
Millions of jobs fell off the European map in the global downturn and many more look set to be squeezed as governments axe public spending.
In Spain, where unemployment has more than doubled and one in five workers are jobless, strikers clashed with police, provoked rush-hour chaos and forced airlines to cancel flights.
Tens of thousands also took to the streets in major cities in evening protests over the government measures, aimed at slashing unemployment which has soared to more than 20 percent and reviving the battered economy.
"This clamour, this expression of democracy, of freedom... cannot pass unnoticed by the government, which must react," the head of the CCOO union, Ignacio Fernandez Toxo, said at the march in the capital.
Portugal's leading labour confederation, the CGTP, which is close to the communists, called protests in Lisbon and Porto.
Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates meanwhile announced that his government would cut civil servants' pay by 5.0 percent next year, affecting salaries of more than 1,500 euros (2,000 dollars) in the public sector.
The value-added sales tax would rise two points to 23 percent.
Thousands rallied outside the government headquarters in the Polish capital Warsaw under the slogan "No to cuts, yes to development", demanding job security and a higher minimum wage.
Marching to whistles and trumpets and brandishing a multitude of flags representing various trade union branches, they also protested public sector wage freezes and a proposed VAT hike.
About 4,000 protesters turned up in Serbia's eastern town of Bor -- once a regional mining centre -- and complained of a worsening economic situation in the country.
"Living standards have fallen 30 percent, the government has been ignoring workers' rights," said Independent Unions of Serbia chairman Ljubisav Orbovic.
Similar rallies were staged in Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Latvia and The Netherlands, with labour leaders clamouring for growth and protesting the injustice of workers paying for the errors of the financial sector.
Violence was sporadic: Irish police arrested a man after a cement mixer truck with "Toxic Bank Anglo" written on it was crashed into the front gate of Ireland's parliament building in Dublin, and a Croatian consulate in Duesseldorf, Germany, was firebombed.
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