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EU officials meet amid talk of revolt

Union members demonstrated against pervasive unemployment outside an EU summit in Brussels Thursday.Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Associated Press

BRUSSELS — About 10,000 workers from across the European Union protested outside a summit of EU leaders Thursday, demanding they end years of austerity and instead focus on curbing runaway unemployment with more spending.

The protest in snow outside EU headquarters vented frustration over spending cuts and tax hikes imposed by the bloc's governments to deal with debt crises. Trade unions and an increasing number of economists say austerity has inflicted severe pain: Many of the EU countries that use the euro are stuck in recession, and joblessness is at a record high.

''Deepening the recession by dogmatically implementing austerity policies makes no economic sense whatsoever,'' said European Parliament President Martin Schulz.


EU leaders acknowledge swift action is needed to keep social foment in southern Europe from bubbling over. ''I would not exclude that we run the risk of seeing a social revolution,'' said Luxembourg's prime minister, Jean-Claude Juncker.

EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy sought to focus attention of the EU's leaders on spiraling youth joblessness, which in such nations as Spain and Greece is creating a "lost generation."

Unemployment across the 17 eurozone countries rose to a record 11.9 percent during January, from 10.8 in the previous year. Youth unemployment is at 24.2 percent.

Yet the scope for action is limited. Most leaders remain committed to reducing public debt quickly, primarily through spending cuts and raising taxes.

''We won't overcome a debt crisis with more debt,'' Van Rompuy told the leaders in his opening address to the summit.

The two-day EU spring summit traditionally centers on the economy, and peaking unemployment has given it special urgency.

''No leader can be happy with the situation where 26 million people are out of work in the European Union. That is why we are here,'' said Ireland's prime minister, Enda Kenny.


But the leaders have not yet offered an alternative to the fundamentals of the austerity policies — even though some appear ready to temper the measures.

EU Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn insisted strict austerity works and pointed to Kenny's Ireland as an example of where ''fiscal consolidation pays off.''

Ireland on Wednesday successfully sold $6.5 billion in 10-year bonds — its first long-term debt sale since being bailed out in 2010. The country embarked on a strict austerity program to meet the bailout conditions of its international creditors.

Rehn added that he expected EU leaders to back the European Commission's line on austerity in parallel with steps to stoke sustainable growth.

Protesters Thursday called for fundamental changes to the current measures. "When the government violates the rights of the people, insurrection for the people is the most sacred right and the most indispensable of duties,'' one sign at the demonstration read.