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European Unrest Spreads as Greece, Britain Push for Austerity

June 30, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Once again today, debt-laden governments in Europe grappled with massive public anger over austerity measures they’d imposed.

In Greece, the government won a bitter struggle today to rein in debt for bailout help. And, in Britain, civil servants took the streets. A tense calm returned to Athens, Greece today, but shards of glass lay strewn on the sidewalks and charred debris was stacked in the streets.

They were the remnants of riots that raged into last night, as protesters set fires and battled police, who fought back with clouds of tear gas. Even so, the Greek Parliament voted today to implement the austerity measures it had endorsed yesterday.

The International Monetary Fund and the European Union had demanded the move before releasing another $17 billion in bailout funds. Ordinary Greeks said the latest $40 billion in spending cuts and tax hikes will sharply curtail their standard of living.

CHRISTS GINIS, Greece (through translator): When these cuts start, I fear that, aside from those who will be able to afford it, a big percentage of people will have to limit themselves to the very basics.

GIORGOS LAGOS, Greece (through translator): Up to now, I haven’t cut anything, but that’s where we’re headed. Instead of buying a kilo of beef, we will now buy half-a-kilo.

MARGARET WARNER: The public anger behind the riots is also fueled by widespread belief that ordinary people are paying for the mistakes made by European bankers and Greece’s own political leaders.

The first round of austerity measures imposed a year ago undermined economic growth. Greece’s GDP dropped by more than five percent in the first three months of this year, far more than had been expected.

There is similar discontent in Britain, where some 750,000 teachers and civil servants walked off their jobs today over plans to curb their pensions.

WOMAN: Teaching up to the age of 68, I don’t know of anybody who thinks that that is a viable option.

WOMAN: People don’t realize how hard it is teaching and all the effort that you put in. And it’s just unfair to make us work even longer for our pensions.

MARGARET WARNER: The one-day general strike closed 11,000 schools in England and Wales, and travel delays were common at airports and seaports as customs officials walked off the job.

Labor unions said the walkouts were the opening salvo in a planned summer of protests against the Conservative-led government’s austerity plans.

But Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg criticized the job action.

NICK CLEGG, British deputy prime minister: I think it’s a real shame that there are strikes today, because there are talks which are actually ongoing between the government and the trade unions.

I don’t think the strikes help members of the trade unions. I don’t think it helps the public. I don’t think they help the country at large. I think what everybody wants is for us to stick with it, carry on talking, and sort this out.

MARGARET WARNER: Over the past year, Britain has already implemented a broad range of austerity measures, to little immediate economic benefit. Official figures show the economy grew by less than one percent in the first quarter of this year, less than forecast.