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 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 such as 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 also have 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 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-25-year-olds.
The Spanish strike shut down most schools, and hospitals operated with skeleton staffs. Health and education have 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 early afternoon, 82 people had been arrested and 32 people treated for minor injuries.
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.
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.