“Austerity” is a useful word in Europe – it translates easily.
So the rows of brightly clad trade unionists marched proudly behind banners declaring “Non a l’austérité” and “No to austerity”.
Led by ranks of protesters in dark suits, their faces blackened and carrying briefcases, the message was reasonably clear – don’t rush to force ordinary workers to pay for bailing out the banks and making up for unfortunate investment decisions.
Police claim there were a mere 56,000 people on the streets of Brussels but the organisers, the European Trade Union Confederation, believe there was more than the 100,000 they had forecast from 30 countries and 50 trade unions.
They made the capital of the EU the focal point of a day of protest. The day was well chosen as the European Commission unveiled rules to force governments to rein in their budgets – by either cutting spending or raising taxes.
Commission president Jose Barroso insisted that it is the best thing for the workers – they must not be in the position again that they have to pay for government mistakes, he said.
But the throngs that marched the five kilometres were not thinking about the “next time”. Their minds were fixed on now. So far the Irish, the Greeks, the Spanish and the Portuguese are the most knowledgeable about austerity.
“Nobody has ever cut their way out of a recession,” said Steve Fitzpatrick, general secretary of the Communications Workers Union, in Brussels with a group of about 20 Irish representing six trade unions.
About 100 were due to travel but like thousands from other countries were put off by airport disruptions.
Like many of their fellow trade unionists, the Irish were blaming the EU for much of their problems. “The EU experience has turned sour”, Mr Fitzpatrick said, but believed there was some chink of light as economists agree it’s not a good idea to bleed economies.
European Trade Union Confederation head John Monks met with Presidents Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy representing the member states after the protest.
Take longer to pay back the debt, put money into education, jobs for the young, green technology, he advised them.
His message was delivered without the force of the chants of the 100,000 as the route had been carefully chosen to by-pass EU offices and the European Parliament – well protected behind barbed wire fences and police dogs. It also missed the major banks, the legal firms and the lobbying firms.
After the marathon the marchers seemed pleased never-the-less.
They made their way back to their buses and trains, stopped along the way for a beer or coffee, folded their banners, furled their flags and dumped their posters. They were swiftly followed by an army of cleaners, mopping up the last signs of a workers protest.
At the same time President Van Rompuy put out a video message saying it’s crucial to boost employment, and to balance budgets.
But no mention of the alternative views the trade unions would like to see him promote.
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