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Cold comfort as austerity bites in Europe

Source : REUTERS
Last Updated: Mon, Nov 28, 2011 05:10 hrs
Cold comfort as austerity bites in Europe

While workers protest against austerity measures on the streets, cash-strapped Europeans are feeling the pain at home, struggling to pay for heating as winter approaches, reviving soup kitchens for the poorest and getting rid of costly pets.

The debt crisis now ravaging the euro zone has seen governments cut spending, including to welfare programmes, and raise taxes. Unemployment is rising and many Europeans are planning for a bleaker future.

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Romanian mayor Florin Cazacu staged a six-day hunger strike last week over cuts to heating subsidies which meant his town of Brad could not afford fuel oil and 10,000 of its residents, public institutions and hospital faced a bitter winter.

"My hunger strike was an extreme solution, a mayor's cry for help for the community," Cazacu told Reuters by phone on Sunday.

He called off the strike on Saturday after central government agree to pay 1 million lei ($304,000), but said that would only cover 15-20 days of heating for the town where temperatures can fall as low as minus-30 degrees Celsius.

"So what is needed is for the government to ... allot 2,500 tonnes of fuel oil from state reserves to cover heating needs for the entire winter," said the mayor, whose town hall had a shortfall of 3 million lei to buy fuel oil.

The government of Romania - the EU's second-poorest member state, where the average wage is less than 400 euros ($530) a month - cut salaries and raised tax to plug its budget gap.

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Wood-burning stoves, once a symbol of poverty, are making a comeback as Greeks balk at soaring heating bills after the government in Athens raised energy taxes to help plug finances.

"Business is up 100 percent," said Costas Mitsionis, who sells the wood burners and is a rare smiling face in a market in Athens. "Everybody is flocking to buy, poor and rich, alike. This crisis has put the fear of God into everyone."

Even in wealthy Germany, Europe's paymaster and biggest hope of a bailout lifeline, the crisis has led to a surge in soup kitchens, according to the author of a book on poverty.

"There are now about 700 soup kitchens across the country where poor people can go for a free warm meal," said Ulrich Schneider, who is managing director of the Parity Welfare Association. "Soup kitchens were almost unheard of in Germany a decade ago. Now about 1 million people each day are going."

He added: "You're not going to find a soup kitchen in parts of cities like Berlin where the tourists go. They're usually pretty much out of sight and out of mind."

SQUEEZED MIDDLE CLASSES

But it is not only the poor who are feeling the extra pinch.

Pawnbrokers report a roaring trade. Paris's Credit Municipal, founded in 1637, has seen a 20 percent rise in business in the last year with an average of 700 customers a day, catering mainly to the "squeezed middle classes".

Britain's Citizens Advice Bureau, a charity which gives advice on issues including debt and employment, said it had seen an increase in enquiries and from a wider section of society.

"We've seen a lot of people who have either lost their job or who are being squeezed because of a freeze on their income or a cut in working hours," said spokeswoman Moira Haynes.

In a country, not part of the euro zone, where it is joked that people care more about their animals than each other, even beloved pets are falling foul of shrinking household budgets.

London's Battersea Dogs and Cats Home this month reported a surge in the number of people giving up their pets.

"I lost my job four months ago and have tried really hard to find work, but now I'm worried that I might lose my home. Shady's my best friend and I've had him for two years but I can't afford him any more," said dog-owner Aaron LeBlanc.

The Guardian newspaper reported a rise in the number of people harming or killing their pets to claim insurance money.

Britain's allotments are full with people growing their own fruit and vegetables, but for Antonio, an unemployed father who gave up his apartment in Madrid last spring and rented a small house in the Spanish countryside with a plan to grow and sell organic vegetables, there has been little to harvest.

Antonio, who refused to give his last name, saw his crop perish in cold weather and asked his land-owning neighbours for permission to collect olives from their trees with the hope of marinating and selling them. They refused.

"They're not using the olives but they won't give them to me either," he said. "Olives are a tremendous source of nourishment."

In Athens, Themis, 45, who declined to give his last name, said he had lost his job as a chef at a catering company. "I can't find the courage to tell my wife," he said.

Anger across Europe at the scrimping and making do has been compounded by reports some company directors and bankers are doing very well in the crisis and a feeling in some states that the super-rich have evaded taxes or not paid their fair share.

A report that pay for directors of Britain's top 100 companies rose 49 percent last year has added to the sense of outrage among low-paid public sector workers who will stage Britain's biggest strike in 30 years next week over pensions.

A general strike halted public transport and factories across Portugal on Thursday, when Bulgarian railway workers also walked out over plans to cut 2,000 jobs.

In Greece, dozens of members of a union clashed with riot police outside an office of the biggest power producer PPV. The company is charged with collecting a new property tax via electricity bills.




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