ATHENS -- Europe's fragile financial calm was shattered Wednesday as investors worried violent anti-austerity protests in Greece and Spain's debt troubles showed the region still cannot get a grip on its financial crisis and stabilize its common currency, the euro.
Police fired tear gas at rioters hurling gasoline bombs and chunks of marble Wednesday during Greece's largest anti-austerity demonstration in six months -- part of a 24-hour general strike that was a test for the nearly four-month-old coalition government and the new spending cuts it plans to push through.
The brief but intense clashes by a couple of hundred rioters participating in the demonstration of more than 60,000 people came a day after anti-austerity protests rocked the Spanish capital, Madrid.
Hundreds of Spanish anti-austerity protesters gathered again Wednesday, ending near Parliament in Madrid amid a heavy presence of riot police. In Tuesday's protest, police arrested 38 people and 64 were injured.
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 two per cent while the CAC-40 in France fell 2.4 per cent and Britain's FTSE 100 slid 1.4 per cent. The euro was also hit, down a further 0.3 per cent at $1.2840.
The turmoil Wednesday ended weeks of relative calm and optimism among investors that Europe and the 17 countries that use the euro might have turned a corner. Markets have been breathing more easily 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 hikes and economic reforms to meet European deficit targets and, in Greece's case, to continue getting vital aid. The austerity has hit the countries' populations with wage and service cuts, 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."
Spain has struggled for months to convince investors it can handle its debts. The government is to unveil an austere 2013 draft budget and new economic reforms Thursday. Many believe they could be a precursor to a request for financial help from the ECB.
The government has already introduced $82 billion in austerity measures designed to bring down its deficit.
The country is suffering its second recession in three years, with a predicted 1.5 per cent economic contraction in 2012, and has 25 per cent unemployment. The Bank of Spain warned Wednesday the recession could be deeper.
-- The Associated Press