BRUSSELS – Thousands of protesters, some dressed as ghouls and firing flares, demanded on Thursday that EU leaders meeting in Brussels put an end to government spending cuts blamed for mass joblessness and a growing social crisis in parts of Europe.
Holding banners saying "Abolish austerity" and "Education cuts never heal", demonstrators marched towards the Brussels building where EU leaders gathered for a summit.
The protesters braved unseasonable snow to try to push the 27 EU member governments to do more for Europe's 26 million unemployed and end the euro zone's second recession since 2009.
"Abolish all austerity and start listening to the people who are in the streets protesting all over Europe," said Pascoe Sabido, who left England for Belgium after he lost his job.
Police said several thousand people, some masked and dressed as ghouls, turned out to protest peacefully, though their frustration was obvious in banners that read: "No to austerity. Away with governments. Jail the bankers."
About 150 activists from Belgium, Denmark, Germany and Italy said they occupied the headquarters of the EU's top economics official, Commissioner Olli Rehn, who some critics accuse of driving southern European into a spiral of recession and debt.
But EU officials said those protesters ended up in the wrong building - one that is barely used by Rehn's staff. When Belgian police arrived, the demonstrators left the premises, having taken the opportunity to buy beer at the building's cafeteria, an official told Reuters.
Budget cuts are at the center of the euro zone's strategy to overcome a three-year public debt crisis but they are also blamed for a damaging cycle where governments cut back, companies lay off staff, Europeans buy less and young people have no little hope of finding a job.
"The politicians have to put some money back into Europe to give young people a chance," said Heidi Masschelein, a member of Belgium's Christian trade union movement.
Crippling levels of unemployment have led to protests and outbreaks of violence across southern Europe, raising the risk of social breakdown, including rising crime and anti-immigrant attacks that can undermine government stability.
Almost 60 percent of young Greeks are out of work. In Spain some university graduates in their 30s have never had a job.
EU heads of state and government have put the fallout from the crisis at the center of their two-day summit, but have little extra money to spend because of their focus on fiscal discipline.
A new 6-billion-euro initiative to help solve youth unemployment amounts to barely 100 euros for each young person without a job across the 27 countries in the European Union.
(Additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio; writing by Robin Emmott; editing by Rex Merrifield)