Placards against austerity measure
(Reuters) - Police and protesters clashed in Spain, Italy and Portugal on Wednesday as millions of workers went on strike in organised labour's biggest Europe-wide challenge to austerity policies since the euro zone debt crisis erupted three years ago.
Hundreds of flights were cancelled, schools were shut, factories were at a standstill and trains barely ran in Spain and Portugal where unions held their first joint general strike. Stoppages in Belgium interrupted international rail services.
Workers also protested in Greece and France against austerity policies that have taken a heavy economic toll and aggravated mass unemployment.
But the demonstrations organised by the European Trade Union Confederation seemed unlikely to force hard-pressed governments to change their cost-cutting strategies.
In Spain, 118 people were arrested - including two allegedly with material to make explosives - after confrontations at picket lines and damage to storefronts. Riot police fired rubber bullets at protesters in central Madrid in one brief clash. Some 74 people were hurt.
"In austerity, there is only depression and unemployment," Fernando Toxo, head of Spain's biggest union, Comisiones Obreras told tens of thousands of demonstrators in central Madrid.
Even non-union workers jointed protests and marches, reports Reuters.
"This isn't about politics or unions. This is social and economic. If we have to shut down the country we'll shut it down," said 24-year-old Mariluz Gordillo, a non-unionised phone operator at El Corte Ingles department store in Madrid.
In Rome, scuffles broke out between police in riot gear and demonstrators who threw stones, bottles and fireworks at police. About 60 demonstrators were detained. Protesters occupied Pisa's mediaeval Leaning Tower for an hour, hanging a banner reading "Rise up. We are not paying for your crisis".
Police charged into hundreds of protesters outside Parliament in Lisbon, with Portuguese television showing live footage of people being beaten. At least two people were seen being detained by police, who said they had charged in response to a barrage of stones from protesters.
In Portugal and Greece - both rescued with European funds and under strict austerity programmes - the economic downturn sharpened in the third quarter, data showed on Wednesday.
Portuguese unemployment jumped to a record 15.8 percent while in neighbouring Spain, one in four of the workforce is jobless.
Greece's economic output shrank 7.2 percent on an annual basis in the third quarter as the debt-laden country staggers towards its sixth year of depression.
Close to 26 million people are unemployed in the European Union while governments take aim at spending on treasured universal health care and public schools.
"Things have to change... Money has ended up with all the power and people none. How could this happen?" said Esteban Quesada, 58, a hardware store owner in Barcelona who closed his shop to join the protests in Spain's second city.
Throughout southern Europe governments are trying to put public finances back on track after years of overspending. Portugal and Greece have cut pensions and, with Spain, have slashed public sector wages as well as spending on hospitals and schools. Italy and France are also under pressure to control their budget deficits.
EU Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn praised Spain on Wednesday for making progress in trimming its budget but acknowledged many Spaniards are struggling.
In Spain, most of the savings have been gobbled up by higher interest payments on the national debt, swollen by the cost of rescuing banks after a real estate bubble burst in 2008.
Germany's central bank, the Bundesbank, said in a report on Wednesday that the euro zone debt crisis is still the number one risk to German banks and insurers, and the situation had not improved from last year.