Last week saw the largest general strikes to date against austerity policies in Southern Europe. In Portugal, Spain and Greece, but also in Belgium, public services were shut down for a whole day, with hospitals and airports closed, and street traffic almost nonexistent. Public mobilization was most impressive in Athens, Barcelona and Madrid, but a few cities in France also saw public demonstrations, especially of young people, against both cuts in social welfare and retirement benefits and tax increases.
Without a doubt, the past three years of crisis and economic retraction has produced awful social distortions in Southern Europe, and this is not the first time that the pro-cyclical and recessionary effects of an “austerity alone” policy, combined with a straight jacket of tight monetary policy, has been widely criticized. Retired people, the unemployed and especially the youth have suffered the most. Youth unemployment in Spain has reached 50 percent, with a whole generation essentially being denied entry to professional life. German language courses at the Goethe Institutes of Athens and Barcelona have quadrupled, as the young engineers of the South now increasingly seek work in Germany. Although labor mobility was one of the goals of the European common market, it is questionable whether this kind of job migration, with its resulting “brain drain,” is a desirable outcome.
Astonishingly, last week’s general strike, the first ever to be coordinated across national borders, had neither a lasting impact nor a lasting echo, whether in politics or the media. The day-long social mobilization in Southern Europe did not turn into a longer shutdown, as, for example, what happened in Paris in 1996, when proposed labor market reforms triggered a three-week strike of all public services shortly before Christmas.