Brussels: Police threw a ring of steel around EU headquarters on Wednesday as thousands of workers in a sea of banners from across Europe took to the streets amid mounting anger at painful spending cuts.
Police barricaded banks and shops and blocked access to the European Union building, where labour leaders hoped to mass up to 100,000 people from 30 countries in the afternoon to say "no to austerity".
"We`re here to say `no` to the multiplying number of austerity plans, whether adopted by governments or by European institutions," said Bernard Thibault, head of the major CGT French trade union, as the march took off.
"Our message is to avoid adding an unprecedented social crisis to the financial crisis, with the workers paying the cost."
Stepping off buses from as far as Germany, Poland and Britain for a march snaking across Brussels, protestors said they had travelled to the heart of the EU to show the human cost of budget cuts.
"We must make ourselves heard," said 28-year-old Polish policewoman Jelenia Gora after a 20-hour road trip under the Solidarity banner.
"We are here to tell the EU it must slow down cuts," said German miner Markus Machmik, 45, part of a group of 100 from the Ibbenbueren coalmine, dressed in white from hard-hat to boots.
The protest, the biggest such march since 2001 when 80,000 people invaded the Belgian capital, was timed to coincide with an EU plan to fine governments running up deficits.
Detailed proposals of the economic sanctions were released Wednesday by the 27-nation bloc`s executive arm, the European Commission, ahead of a meeting Thursday of the continent`s finance ministers.
"We will demonstrate to voice our concern over the economic and social context, which will be compounded by austerity measures," said John Monks, British general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation.
Millions of jobs fell off the European map in the global downturn and many more look set to be squeezed as governments axe public spending.
In Spain, where unemployment has more than doubled, with one out of five workers jobless, the country battled rush-hour travel chaos and pickets rallied outside factories as unions launched a 24-hour general strike.
The strike, its first since 2002, was called to protest a sweeping overhaul of the country`s labour laws and a range of steep spending cuts.
"This is a crucial day for Europe," said Monks, "because our governments, virtually all of them, are about to embark on solid cuts in public expenditures.
"They`re doing this at a time where the economy is very close to recession, and almost certainly you`ll see the economy go back into recession as the effect of these cuts take place."
Across Europe labour leaders are equally concerned.
Portugal`s leading labour confederation, the CGTP, which is close to the communists, called protests in Lisbon and Porto and hopes for more than 10,000 participants.
Poland`s main unions, Solidarity and OPZZ, expected "several thousand" at a protest outside government headquarters.
Similar marches were scheduled in Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia and Serbia, with labour leaders across the board clamouring for growth and protesting the injustice of workers paying for the errors of the financial sector.
As Europe tries to clean up its post-recession books, a backlash has also begun focused on vast anticipated numbers of public sector job cuts.
In Britain unions, lawmakers and the rank and file handed leadership of the opposition Labour Party to left-leaning Ed Miliband, in a surprise, last-minute defeat for his better-known, centre-right brother and former foreign secretary David.
"We`re a rich part of the world," said Monks.
"We`re going to keep this campaign going, fight for growth, fight for jobs, fight to protect social Europe. Don`t go down the austerity route."