The year that was meant to bring relief to the eurozone’s crisis is instead ending in strikes, stock exchange runs and political collapse on some of its key battlegrounds.
Greece’s government now looks unlikely to survive December.
And successful general strikes in Belgium and Italy are the latest step in the biggest workers’ fightback in either country for several decades.
In Greece, Tory prime minister Antonis Samaras threw down the gauntlet to the left last week by bringing forward the presidential election. Unusually, parliament has been kept open over Christmas so that MPs now have three chances to elect a president.
The first vote was set to take place on Wednesday of this week—surrounded by protesters and alongside a three-hour strike across the public sector. The second is due the following Tuesday.
To pass either of these, Samaras’ candidate must get a supermajority of two thirds of MPs. But this is out of the question with his wafer-thin majority. The decisive vote on 29 December sees the bar set only slightly lower.
The government’s only real hope is that the opposition—particularly radical left party Syriza—blinks first.
Once Samaras announced the vote, the Athens stock exchange plummeted by 20 percent—its worst fall in 27 years.
And the cost of borrowing soared for the government, particularly on the three-year bonds that were meant to symbolise its recovery.
This increases the pressure on Syriza not to trigger a new general election by opposing Samaras. But a new wave of protests means there has also been pressure from below for it to stand firm.
These were given a huge symbolic boost last week when jailed anarchist Nikos Romanos won the right to attend university classes. Romanos had been on hunger strike for 31 days and thousands had marched in his support.
Meanwhile a general strike of workers in all three main union federations shut down Belgium on Monday—and hit the Eurostar trains into London.
It followed major coordinated strikes last week and the country’s biggest demonstration since the 1980s in November.
The new right wing government wants to slash workers’ incomes by decoupling wages and benefits from inflation, and make people work longer.
A general strike in Italy on Friday of last week saw over 40,000 people march in Rome.
There were more than 50 other rallies around the country—with protesters climbing over the council headquarters fence in Milan.
The government wants to make it easier to sack workers with a new Jobs Act.
Here too the strike involved several union federations, and follows a mass demonstration in the autumn.
Perhaps most significantly, it is Italy’s first general strike under a centre-left government.
Both Italy and Belgium are under pressure from the European Commission to cut harder and faster. They, along with France, have been warned that their harsh budgets aren’t harsh enough and could break European Union rules.
These are the eurozone’s second, fourth and sixth biggest economies. The same battle lines drawn in “peripheral” countries three years ago now extend right to the heart of Europe.
Greece is a much smaller economy. But it is where the stakes are the highest. If workers there break out of paying the bankers’ debts it would unravel the whole European austerity project.
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