BUDAPEST – European and local trade unions held a massive demonstration in the Hungarian capital Budapest Saturday to protest austerity measures, on the margins of a meeting of European finance ministers.
"We want jobs, growth, our welfare state intact, and we are not going to pay for bankers' mistakes," European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) leader John Monks said in front of a crowd organisers estimated at 45,000.
The tens of thousands of marchers swarmed from everywhere from Spain to Romania into Budapest, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.
The trade union-led delegations formed a giant and noisy cortege heading down one of the city's main drags from Heroes' Square, sounding sirens over fears of hundreds of thousands more job losses across the continent.
Holding boards reading "No austerity", marchers from 22 countries demanded more "social Europe, fair pay and jobs" and bashed bankers along with European leaders.
Particularly under attack were German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicholas Sarkozy, who were shown whipping workers on the ground.
The trade unions harshly criticised the European Union's push for more harmonised economic policies, fearing wages would be sacrificed for the sake of competitiveness.
The demonstration was called to Budapest by the ETUC to coincide with an informal meeting of the EU's finance ministers, held about 30 kilometres (20 miles) from the capital.
"The ministers are locked into this orthodoxy that there got to be suffering before everybody can have some growth. I think this is completely wrong," Monks told AFP before the march.
Monks called on the finance ministers in session "to take some pressure off from Ireland and Greece", saying "more of a helping hand than a punch is required there".
He was also sceptical on European ministers's decision to help Portugal with an 80-billion euro bailout.
"EU bailouts are not working. The terms are too tough, too austere, too deflationary," he said.
Portuguese teacher Lucinda Damaso, 54, who travelled from Lisbon with 20 other teachers, came to Budapest to express her anxiety about losing her work.
"We no longer believe in the speeches of the ministers... They cut our salaries, and now with the bailout we fear there will be much more unemployment, just like in Spain," she said.
For their part, finance ministers asked for some sympathy for the austerity measures.
"People must understand that we are not making savings to make people angry, we are making savings in order to be able to pay in future for our social policies," Luxembourg Finance Minister Luc Frieden said.
"I understand (the demonstrations) but I think it is wrong," said German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble.
He said the EU had embarked on a path of public sector cuts and other drastic measures to carve out a "sustainable framework for growth."
"And for sustainable growth, stable currency is a precondition, and stable budgets are a precondition," otherwise today's governments would be abdicating their "responsibility to future generations," he added.
Alongside the European demonstration, Hungarian trade unions protested against home-grown austerity policies of the centre-right government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
They also complained about the lack of consultations prior to government decisions.
"This is a straightforward lie. There is no consultation at all between the government and the unions. Social dialogue has ceased in Hungary. This government does not negotiate with the society," Istvan Gasko of the local Liga Union told AFP.