ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Europe’s fragile financial calm was shattered Wednesday as investors worried that violent anti-austerity protests in Greece and Spain’s debt troubles showed that the continent still cannot contain its financial crisis.
Police fired tear gas Wednesday at rioters hurling gasoline bombs and chunks of marble during Greece’s largest anti-austerity demonstration in six months. The protests were part of a 24-hour general strike, the latest test for Greece’s nearly four-month-old coalition government and the new spending cuts it plans to push through.
The brief but intense clashes by several hundred rioters among the 60,000 people protesting in Athens came a day after anti-austerity protests rocked the Spanish capital.
In Madrid, thousands of angry protesters again swarmed as close as they could get Wednesday night to Parliament, watched by a heavy contingent of riot police. There was no fresh violence, but the demonstrators cut off traffic on one of the city’s major thoroughfares at the height of the evening commute.
The protesters chanted for the release of 34 people detained Tuesday night in clashes that injured 64 others. They also demanded new elections to oust Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his conservative government, which has imposed cutbacks and tax hikes, deepening the gloom in a country struggling with recession and unemployment of nearly 25 percent, the highest among the 17 nations using the common euro currency.
Spain’s central bank warned Wednesday the country’s economy continues to shrink “significantly,” sending the Spanish stock index tumbling and its borrowing costs rising.
Across Europe, stock markets fell as well. Germany’s DAX dropped 2 percent while the CAC-40 in France fell 2.4 percent and Britain’s FTSE 100 slid 1.4 percent. The euro was also hit, down a further 0.3 percent at $1.2840.
The turmoil Wednesday ended weeks of relative calm and optimism among investors that Europe and eurozone might have turned a corner. Markets have been breathing easier since the European Central Bank said earlier this month it would buy unlimited amounts of government bonds to help countries with their debts.
The move by the ECB helped lower borrowing costs for indebted governments from levels that only two months ago threatened to bankrupt Spain and Italy. Stocks also rose. Media speculation about the timing and cost of a eurozone breakup or a departure by troubled Greece faded.
However, the economic reality in Europe remained dire. Several countries have had to impose harsh new spending cuts, tax rises and economic reforms to meet European deficit targets and, in Greece’s case, to continue getting vital aid. The austerity has hit citizens with wage cuts and fewer services, and left their economies struggling through recessions as reduced government spending has undermined growth.
“Yesterday’s anti-austerity protests in Madrid, together with today’s 24-hour strike in Greece, are both reminders that rampant unemployment and a general collapse in living standards make people desperate and angry,” said David Morrison, senior market strategist at GFT Markets.
“There are growing concerns that the situation across the eurozone is set to take a turn for the worse,” he said.