By RAF CASERT
The Associated Press
Thursday, March 24, 2011; 10:52 AM
BRUSSELS -- Police used water cannons and pepper spray to keep demonstrators angry over plans for tough economic measures away from the site of Thursday's European Union summit.
Police said close to 20,000 workers marched against an economic reform package unions say is far too business-friendly, chanting, blowing whistles and blocking key roads in central Brussels. The protest cause traffic gridlock in the part of the Belgian capital that houses EU institutions. A dozen police officers were injured in scuffles.
Eurozone leaders are committing themselves to hit annual benchmarks on economic competitiveness, boosting employment and making their budgets sustainable in the long term. The trade unions call the pact an unprecedented attack on Europe's welfare state, targeting workers with austerity measures while undermining cherished social gains.
Because of a fear of violence, helicopters circled over the summit site, hundreds of police patrolled throughout the capital, and heavy equipment, including water cannons, was stationed close to EU headquarters. Demonstrators armed with sticks and other protesters throwing stones confronted police cordons but could not break through.
By the time the summit leaders started arriving for the two-day meeting much of the calm had returned to the Belgian capital.
Police spokeswoman Ilse Van de Keere said a dozen policemen were injured as they stood their ground against dozens of rock-throwing protesters trying to get through. Three were hospitalized.
On a ring road close to the summit site where several marches converged, police used three water cannons and pepper spray to keep thousands of demonstrators from getting closer to summit site. Three injured policemen were seen carried away by an AP video journalist.
Activists hung big billboards close to the EU headquarters, reading: "Competitiveness Pact: NO. Austerity Pact: NO. Solidarity Pact: YES!"
Addressing the cause of the demonstration, EU President Herman Van Rompuy said only renewed growth would lead to prosperity for all, requiring painful measures.
"We all had to take tough and unpopular measures, and not for the fun of it. Securing financial stability is important for the people themselves," he said.
Unions argued that they were bearing the brunt of the changes.
"The workers of Europe want to keep their social models, and do not accept that they will have to pay for the crisis," said John Monks, the leader of the ETUC European trade union federation.
The union said Thursday's action in Brussels will coincide with protests in Spain and Germany.
Igor Meglajec contributed to this story