Workers aimed to present a united front against unemployment and government spending cuts with strikes and demonstrations yesterday across the European Union.

However, while austerity-hit countries such as Spain and Portugal saw a high turnout, protests were largely absent in wealthier northern countries like Germany and Denmark.

To combat a three-year financial crisis over too much debt, governments across Europe have had to cut spending, pensions and benefits and raise taxes. As well as hitting income and living standards, the measures have also led to a decline in economic output and rapidly rising unemployment.

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The 17 countries that use the euro are expected to fall into recession when official figures are released today. Meanwhile, unemployment across the eurozone has reached a record 11.6%, while in Spain and Greece it has hit the 25% mark.

"There is a social emergency in the south," said Bernadette Segol, secretary-general of the European Trade Union Confederation. "All recognise the policies carried out now are unfair and not working."

Spain's General Workers' Union said the nationwide stoppage, the second this year, was being observed by nearly all workers in the car, energy, shipbuilding and construction industries. The country is mired in recession, with 50% unemployment among the under-25s.

"Of course it's a political strike, against the policies of a suicidal and anti-social government," said Ignacio Fernandez Toxo, a Spanish union leader.

The Spanish strike shut down most schools and hospitals operated with a skeleton staff. Health and education have suffered serious spending cutbacks and increased moves to privatisation.

In bailed-out Portugal, where the government plans to intensify austerity measures next year, the second general strike in eight months left commuters stranded as trains ground to a virtual halt and the Lisbon subway shut down. Around 200 flights to and from Portugal – about half the daily average – were cancelled.

Hospitals provided only minimum services, and municipal rubbish was left uncollected overnight. Airports across Europe suffered from the strikes, with many forced to cancel flights to and from striking nations.

In Belgium, a 24-hour rail stoppage and scattered strikes through the south of the nation disrupted daily life. The Thalys and Eurostar high-speed rail services that connect Brussels with London and Paris were severely disrupted.

In Germany there have only been "symbolic demonstrations", according to Michael Sommer, head of Germany's main labour union federation, "because we were able to avoid the crisis".

In Denmark, too, there were no strikes, since co-operation between workers and employers has largely survived the crisis.