As the European Union prepares to announce sanctions against overruns in national budgets, a wave of social discontent prompted by spending cuts and pension reforms is rising across Europe. A general strike has been called in Spain and protesters are taking to the streets in Ireland, Italy, Greece, Serbia, Latvia and France.

In the firstgeneral strike of the Zapatero era, large numbers of Spanish workers have today (September 29) taken to the streets to protest against reforms of the labour market and an austerity drive caused by the eurozone debt crisis (see below). Discontent is not confined to Madrid and Barcelona, trade unions are up in arms all over Europe. Brussels itself has seen a mass demonstration against cuts by theEuropean Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), with organisers claiming more than 100,000 people from 30 countries converged on the Belgian capital to say "no to austerity". It has been almost nine years since the ETUC organised a demonstration on this scale, when in December 2001 the confederation brought 80,000 to the European capital to demand greater social justice and solidarity.

In Portugal, the country’s largest union, the pro-communist CGTP, has organised demonstrations in Lisbon and Porto. The two main trade union organisations in Poland, Solidarity and OPZZ, have also called for protesters to assemble outside government offices. And other demonstrations have been announced in Ireland, Italy, Serbia and Latvia. Finally in France, further marches to protest against the reform of the pension system have been scheduled for October 2.

Pressure on the Commission

The unions are hoping to pressure the European Commission, which today will present plans to sanction eurozone countries that do not comply with rules on budgetary austerity. Countries that overspend or fail to reduce their debt to manageable levels will now face fines imposed by Brussels. Finance ministers of the EU’s 27 member states are scheduled to meet on 30 September to discuss the situation.

Since the beginning of the "debt crisis" 18 months ago, which highlighted dangerously high debt levels in Greece and a large number of other eurozone economies, governments in several member states including Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, Ireland, Portugal and France, have warned of severe cutbacks in public spending and state pension schemes.

As ETUC general secretary John Monks points out in his Internet video message, the danger inherent in austerity policy is that it will have a negative impact on growth at a time when “the economy is very close to a recession". In contrast, the confederation is defending a policy of support for economic growth. Strangely enough, in a rare coincidence the ETUC position is surprisingly close to the one adopted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has issued several warnings about the side effects of austerity measures in recent months.