Tens of thousands of Italians took to the streets Friday to protest public spending cuts that are part of a tide of government austerity washing over Europe.
Demonstrators demanded that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi modify his plan to freeze public-sector salaries and slash local government funding, a tough retrenchment that he says is necessary to bring down Italy’s budget deficit and bolster confidence in the battered euro.
The protest came a day after hundreds of thousands of demonstrators turned out in France to denounce a move to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. Germany, Portugal, Spain and Greece are all grappling with rising discontent over tough new public spending regimes.
Berlusconi’s austerity plan for Italy, which includes a 10% budget cut across government departments, is expected to save $30 billion. Presented last month, the plan took some observers by surprise because Berlusconi had insisted for weeks beforehand that Italy did not face the same kinds of deficit and debt problems as Greece.
Union activists say they recognize the need to reduce Italy’s budget deficit but that the axe falls hardest on those who can bear it the least. Angry workers walked off the job for hours Friday, shutting down public transport in some areas.
“We say no to this budget. It is wrong, unjust, it stunts growth, it does not kick-start production, it doesn’t touch the rich, and it punishes workers,” union leader Fulvio Mammoni told thousands of protesters in Naples.
The outpouring of anger in cities such as Rome and Milan came as leaders of the Group of 20 nations gathered for a summit in Canada, partly to debate the wisdom of tightened government spending at a time when many of the world’s biggest economies are still struggling to stay out of recession.
President Obama has asked the G-20 countries not to risk killing the fragile global recovery through too much austerity too soon. But many of Obama’s European counterparts have politely disagreed with his analysis, contending that balancing their books must come first, particularly with international investors breathing down their necks.
While this has been especially true among the nations that use the euro, because of the recent loss of investor confidence in the currency, even countries outside the Eurozone have opted to go down the path of government cutbacks. This week, Britain’s new Conservative-led ruling coalition unveiled the harshest budget the country has seen since the early 1980s.
Special correspondent De Cristofaro reported from Rome and Times staff writer Chu reported from London.