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Austerity protests stall several European nations

  • Riot police apprehend a protestor during a general strike in Valencia, Spain, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. Spain's main trade unions stage a general strike, coinciding with similar work stoppages in Portugal and Greece, to protest government-imposed austerity measures and labor reforms. The strike is the second in Spain this year. (AP Photo/ Fernando Hernandez)Riot police apprehend a protestor during a general strike in Valencia, Spain, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. Spain's main trade unions stage a general strike, coinciding with similar work stoppages in Portugal and Greece, to protest government-imposed austerity measures and labor reforms. The strike is the second in Spain this year. (AP Photo/ Fernando Hernandez)
  • Police officers try to push protesters back onto the pavement Nov. 14, 2012, after they blocked traffic on Oxford Street in London while demonstrating against the dismissal of 28 workers employed by contractors on the Crossrail transport project, whom they say were fired for being trade union members. (Associated Press)Police officers try to push protesters back onto the pavement Nov. 14, 2012, after they blocked traffic on Oxford Street in London while demonstrating against the dismissal of 28 workers employed by contractors on the Crossrail transport project, whom they say were fired for being trade union members. (Associated Press)
  • A police officer fires tear gas as police face demonstrators during a protest against Italian Government austerity measures in Turin, Italy, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. Workers across the European Union sought to present a united front against rampant unemployment and government spending cuts Wednesday with a string of strikes and demonstrations across the region. Protesters clashed with police in various demonstrations in Rome, Milan, Turin, Padua and Brescia. (AP Photo/Fabio Ferrari, Lapresse)A police officer fires tear gas as police face demonstrators during a protest against Italian Government austerity measures in Turin, Italy, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. Workers across the European Union sought to present a united front against rampant unemployment and government spending cuts Wednesday with a string of strikes and demonstrations across the region. Protesters clashed with police in various demonstrations in Rome, Milan, Turin, Padua and Brescia. (AP Photo/Fabio Ferrari, Lapresse)
  • A woman cries out as she tries to help a protestor who lies injured on the ground as a policeman stands nearby, after clashes with riot police during a general strike in Valencia, Spain, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012.  Spain's General Workers' Union said the nationwide stoppage, the second this year, was being observed by nearly all workers in the automobile, energy, shipbuilding and constructions industries. (AP Photo/Fernando Hernandez)A woman cries out as she tries to help a protestor who lies injured on the ground as a policeman stands nearby, after clashes with riot police during a general strike in Valencia, Spain, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. Spain's General Workers' Union said the nationwide stoppage, the second this year, was being observed by nearly all workers in the automobile, energy, shipbuilding and constructions industries. (AP Photo/Fernando Hernandez)
  • A demonstrator blows a horn in front of Spanish riot police during a general strike against government austerity measures, in Pamplona, northern Spain, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012.  A Spanish Interior Ministry official says 32 people have been arrested and 15 people treated for minor injuries in disturbances as a general strike in Spain against austerity measures and economic reforms began. The General Workers Union said the nationwide stoppage, the second this year, was being heeded by nearly 100 percent of workers Wednesday in the automobile, energy, shipbuilding and constructions industries. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)A demonstrator blows a horn in front of Spanish riot police during a general strike against government austerity measures, in Pamplona, northern Spain, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. A Spanish Interior Ministry official says 32 people have been arrested and 15 people treated for minor injuries in disturbances as a general strike in Spain against austerity measures and economic reforms began. The General Workers Union said the nationwide stoppage, the second this year, was being heeded by nearly 100 percent of workers Wednesday in the automobile, energy, shipbuilding and constructions industries. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)
  • Protestors march during a general strike in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. Spain's main trade unions staged a general strike, coinciding with similar work stoppages in Portugal and Greece, to protest government-imposed austerity measures and labor reforms. The strike is the second in Spain this year. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)Protestors march during a general strike in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. Spain's main trade unions staged a general strike, coinciding with similar work stoppages in Portugal and Greece, to protest government-imposed austerity measures and labor reforms. The strike is the second in Spain this year. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)
  • Demonstrators clash with riot police during a protest against Italian Government austerity measures in Rome, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. Workers across the European Union sought to present a united front against rampant unemployment and government spending cuts Wednesday with a string of strikes and demonstrations across the region. Protesters clashed with police in various demonstrations in Rome, Milan, Turin, Padua and Brescia. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)Demonstrators clash with riot police during a protest against Italian Government austerity measures in Rome, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. Workers across the European Union sought to present a united front against rampant unemployment and government spending cuts Wednesday with a string of strikes and demonstrations across the region. Protesters clashed with police in various demonstrations in Rome, Milan, Turin, Padua and Brescia. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
  • A protestor is held by riot police during clashes in a general strike in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. Spain's General Workers' Union said the nationwide stoppage, the second this year, was being observed by nearly all workers in the automobile, energy, shipbuilding and constructions industries. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)A protestor is held by riot police during clashes in a general strike in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. Spain's General Workers' Union said the nationwide stoppage, the second this year, was being observed by nearly all workers in the automobile, energy, shipbuilding and constructions industries. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)
  • Demonstrators shout and wave flags as they march through Gran Via street during a general strike in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. Spain's General Workers' Union said the nationwide stoppage, the second this year, was being observed by nearly all workers in the automobile, energy, shipbuilding and constructions industries. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)Demonstrators shout and wave flags as they march through Gran Via street during a general strike in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. Spain's General Workers' Union said the nationwide stoppage, the second this year, was being observed by nearly all workers in the automobile, energy, shipbuilding and constructions industries. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)
  • Riot police arrest a protestor during a general strike in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. Spain's main trade unions stage a general strike, coinciding with similar work stoppages in Portugal and Greece, to protest government-imposed austerity measures and labor reforms. The strike is the second in Spain this year. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)Riot police arrest a protestor during a general strike in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. Spain's main trade unions stage a general strike, coinciding with similar work stoppages in Portugal and Greece, to protest government-imposed austerity measures and labor reforms. The strike is the second in Spain this year. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)
  • Protestors use spoons and pans to make noise during an European trade union protest in Brussels on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. With rampant unemployment spreading misery in southern Europe and companies shutting factories across the continent, workers around the European Union sought to unite in a string of strikes and demonstrations on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)Protestors use spoons and pans to make noise during an European trade union protest in Brussels on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. With rampant unemployment spreading misery in southern Europe and companies shutting factories across the continent, workers around the European Union sought to unite in a string of strikes and demonstrations on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
  • A police officer, center right, is helped by a colleague after getting hurt during a general strike in Madrid, Wednesday Nov. 14, 2012. A Spanish Interior Ministry official says 32 people have been arrested and 15 people treated for minor injuries in disturbances as a general strike in Spain against austerity measures and economic reforms began. The General Workers Union said the nationwide stoppage, the second this year, was being heeded by nearly 100 percent of workers Wednesday in the automobile, energy, shipbuilding and constructions industries. (AP Photo/Paul White)A police officer, center right, is helped by a colleague after getting hurt during a general strike in Madrid, Wednesday Nov. 14, 2012. A Spanish Interior Ministry official says 32 people have been arrested and 15 people treated for minor injuries in disturbances as a general strike in Spain against austerity measures and economic reforms began. The General Workers Union said the nationwide stoppage, the second this year, was being heeded by nearly 100 percent of workers Wednesday in the automobile, energy, shipbuilding and constructions industries. (AP Photo/Paul White)
  • Police clash with protestors during a general strike in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. Spain's main trade unions stage a general strike, coinciding with similar work stoppages in Portugal and Greece, to protest government-imposed austerity measures and labor reforms. The strike is the second in Spain this year. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)Police clash with protestors during a general strike in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. Spain's main trade unions stage a general strike, coinciding with similar work stoppages in Portugal and Greece, to protest government-imposed austerity measures and labor reforms. The strike is the second in Spain this year. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)
  • Police clash with demonstrators during a protest against Italian Government austerity measures in Rome, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. Workers across the European Union sought to present a united front against rampant unemployment and government spending cuts Wednesday with a string of strikes and demonstrations across the region. Protesters clashed with police in various demonstrations in Rome, Milan, Turin, Padua and Brescia. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)Police clash with demonstrators during a protest against Italian Government austerity measures in Rome, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. Workers across the European Union sought to present a united front against rampant unemployment and government spending cuts Wednesday with a string of strikes and demonstrations across the region. Protesters clashed with police in various demonstrations in Rome, Milan, Turin, Padua and Brescia. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
  • Workers shout slogans and hold a banner reading " Employment, pensions, united across Europe" , during a demonstration against austerity, in Marseille, southern France,  Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012.  With rampant unemployment spreading misery in southern Europe and companies shutting factories across the continent, workers around the European Union sought to unite in a string of strikes and demonstrations on Wednesday, with strikes and protests planned in Italy, Greece, Portugal, France and Belgium. (AP Photo/Claude Paris)Workers shout slogans and hold a banner reading " Employment, pensions, united across Europe" , during a demonstration against austerity, in Marseille, southern France, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. With rampant unemployment spreading misery in southern Europe and companies shutting factories across the continent, workers around the European Union sought to unite in a string of strikes and demonstrations on Wednesday, with strikes and protests planned in Italy, Greece, Portugal, France and Belgium. (AP Photo/Claude Paris)
  • Demonstrators clash with policemen in riot gear during a protest against Italian Government austerity measures in Rome, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. Workers across the European Union sought to present a united front against rampant unemployment and government spending cuts Wednesday with a string of strikes and demonstrations across the region. Protesters clashed with police in various demonstrations in Rome, Milan, Turin, Padua and Brescia. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)Demonstrators clash with policemen in riot gear during a protest against Italian Government austerity measures in Rome, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. Workers across the European Union sought to present a united front against rampant unemployment and government spending cuts Wednesday with a string of strikes and demonstrations across the region. Protesters clashed with police in various demonstrations in Rome, Milan, Turin, Padua and Brescia. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
  • Protesters block traffic on one side of Oxford Street, London, whilst taking part in a picket and demonstration they said was over dismissals of 28 workers employed by contractors on the Crossrail transport project, for being trade union members, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. The protest was held to coincide with planned European strikes on Wednesday in Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, France and Belgium against austerity measures and economic reforms.  Crossrail, due to start running services in 2018, is a new train line that will include twin-bore 21 km tunnels under central London and link 37 stations including transport hubs such as Heathrow airport with business districts including the City and Canary Wharf. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)Protesters block traffic on one side of Oxford Street, London, whilst taking part in a picket and demonstration they said was over dismissals of 28 workers employed by contractors on the Crossrail transport project, for being trade union members, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012. The protest was held to coincide with planned European strikes on Wednesday in Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, France and Belgium against austerity measures and economic reforms. Crossrail, due to start running services in 2018, is a new train line that will include twin-bore 21 km tunnels under central London and link 37 stations including transport hubs such as Heathrow airport with business districts including the City and Canary Wharf. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
  • Protesters carry a banner reading "Resist the measures" during a union protest outside Parliament in Athens on Nov. 14, 2012. Workers across the European Union sought to present a united front against rampant unemployment and government spending cuts with a string of strikes and demonstrations across the region. (Associated Press)Protesters carry a banner reading "Resist the measures" during a union protest outside Parliament in Athens on Nov. 14, 2012. Workers across the European Union sought to present a united front against rampant unemployment and government spending cuts with a string of strikes and demonstrations across the region. (Associated Press)
  • A protester covers her head in a plastic bag, meant to show that austerity measures are suffocating Greeks, outside Parliament during a union protest in Athens on Nov. 14, 2012. Workers across the European Union sought to present a united front against rampant unemployment and government spending cuts Wednesday with a string of strikes and demonstrations across the region. (Associated Press)A protester covers her head in a plastic bag, meant to show that austerity measures are suffocating Greeks, outside Parliament during a union protest in Athens on Nov. 14, 2012. Workers across the European Union sought to present a united front against rampant unemployment and government spending cuts Wednesday with a string of strikes and demonstrations across the region. (Associated Press)
  • A protester sits in Gran Via street during a general strike in Madrid on Nov. 14, 2012. Spain's General Workers' Union said the nationwide stoppage — the second this year — was being observed by nearly all workers in the automobile, energy, shipbuilding and constructions industries. (Associated Press)
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BRUSSELS — Hundreds of thousands of Europe's beleaguered citizens went on strike or snarled the streets of several capitals Wednesday, at times clashing with riot police, as they demanded that governments stop cutting benefits and create more jobs.

Workers with jobs and without spoke of a "social emergency" crippling the world's largest economic bloc, a union of 27 nations and half a billion people.

The protests were met with tear gas in Italy and Spain, but were largely limited to the countries hardest hit by the austerity measures designed to bring government spending into line with revenues. Wealthier nations like Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark saw only small, sedate demonstrations.

Governments backing the line of stringent austerity were not impressed by the show of force.

"We must nevertheless do what is necessary: break open encrusted labor markets, give more people a chance to work, become more flexible in many areas," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. "We will of course make this clear, again and again, in talks with the unions."

Spanish Economy Minister Luis de Guindos spoke of "a long crisis that has meant sacrifice and uncertainty," but said: "The government is convinced that the path we have taken is the only possible way out."

To combat a three-year financial crisis over too much sovereign debt, governments across Europe have had to raise taxes and cut spending, pensions and benefits. As well as hitting workers' incomes and living standards, these measures have also led to a decline in economic output and a sharp increase in unemployment.

The zone of the 17 countries that use the euro currency is expected to fall into recession when official figures are released Thursday. Unemployment across those countries has reached a record 11.6 percent, with Spain and Greece seeing levels above 25 percent.

With no end in sight to Europe's economic hardship, workers were trying to take a stand on Wednesday.

"There is a social emergency in the south," said Bernadette Segol, secretary general of the European Trade Union Confederation. "All recognize that the policies carried out now are unfair and not working."

Spain's General Workers' Union said the nationwide strike — the second this year — was being observed by nearly all workers in the automobile, energy, shipbuilding and construction industries. The country, reeling from austerity measures designed to prevent it from asking for a full-blown international bailout, is mired in recession with 50 percent unemployment among its under-25s.

Ignacio Fernandez Toxo, a CCOO Spanish union leader, called Wednesday's actions "a political strike against the policies of a suicidal and anti-social government."

The Spanish strike shut down most schools, and hospitals operated with skeleton staffs. Health and education have both suffered serious spending cutbacks and increased moves toward privatization.

Frustration spilled into violence when riot police clashed with demonstrators in Madrid and other Spanish cities. By late afternoon, 110 people had been arrested and 40 people, including 18 police, injured.

In Italy, protests turned violent as well, with some of the tens of thousands of students and workers clashing with riot police in several cities. Dozens of demonstrators were detained and a handful of police were injured, according to Italian news reports.

In bailed-out Portugal, where the government intends to intensify austerity measures next year, the second general strike in eight months left commuters stranded as trains ground to a virtual halt and the Lisbon subway shut down. Some 200 flights to and from Portugal — about half the daily average — were canceled. Hospitals provided only minimum services and municipal trash was left uncollected.

Protest marches in 40 Portuguese cities reportedly were peaceful but as night fell a small group of protesters threw rocks and stones at riot police protecting the parliament building in Lisbon.

Airports across Europe were forced to cancel flights to and from striking nations.

In Belgium, a 24-hour rail stoppage severely disrupted the Thalys and the Eurostar high-speed rail services — vital links that connect Brussels, London and Paris.

Philippe de Buck, chief of the EU employers' federation Eurobusiness, said the strike would cost billions of euros and hurt Europe's ability to attract investors.

"If you start striking at national level and in companies you only will harm the economy," he said. "And it is not the right thing to do today."

Europe has a long history of union action, and workers' rights and benefits have been one of the cornerstones of its welfare state, with its guaranteed medical care, generous unemployment benefits and often comfortable pensions.

The union action was not felt across the entire region, however, with countries where austerity has not hit as hard experiencing little disruption.

In Austria, which has the eurozone's lowest unemployment at 4.3 percent, only about 350 people gathered in a central square in Vienna to express solidarity with Greece. Many danced a sirtaki, Greece's traditional dance.

"So far, there are only symbolic demonstrations here in Germany, because we were able to avoid the crisis," said Michael Sommer, the head of Germany's main labor union federation.

In Denmark, too, there were no strikes, since cooperation between workers and employers has largely survived the crisis.

"The employers speak the same language as we do and we understand each other's needs and demands," said Joergen Frederiksen, a 69-year-old retired worker and former shop steward. "There are good vibes between us and that means a lot."

Among the Associated Press writers contributing to this report were Ciaran Giles in Madrid; Geir Moulson in Berlin; Jan Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark; Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands; Barry Hatton in Lisbon, Portugal; Colleen Barry in Milan, Italy; and Elena Becatoros in Athens, Greece.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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