BRUSSELS – If an unprecedented debt crisis has been battering the European Union for over three years, isn't it time that EU employees take a sizeable pay cut too?
That was a popular question Thursday as thousands of well-paid and much-maligned workers known as "eurocrats" walked off the job and threatened more strikes later in the month.
At first glance, the question could be asked why it has taken this long to start talking about reining in jobs and pay at EU headquarters.
"The right to strike is a right. But for us, we only see the crisis and a crash in business," said cabdriver Khalid Eluahabi, who found himself waiting far too long near EU headquarters to pick up a fare.
With European companies shedding jobs by the tens of thousands, unemployment lines growing ever longer and millions pushed towards the brink of poverty, the 27-nation EU is facing an unprecedented crisis.
The EU's answer so far has been to impose strict budgetary austerity, a requirement that often forces debt-laden nations to lay off public workers and cut the pay of those who remain.
Those going on strike Thursday said they fear that plans for EU budget cuts will reduce EU staffing and compromise their pay. They also see themselves as part of the solution for Europe's problems and say job cuts would hurt many programs that are good for Europe.
To outsiders, however, it seems that EU personnel have no interest in swallowing their own medicine.
At noon, about 1,000 EU civil servants congregated under the star-shaped headquarters of the EU Commission to push their demands.
But even within the European Commission, there were doubts whether striking was the right move. Up to half of the staff declined to take part Thursday.
"The strike is not at the right moment. In southern Europe, we have people struggling," said Ioannis Sakiotis, a Greek at the EU Commission's fisheries department who was thinking of the deep misery the debt crisis has caused back home. "All working people face a lot of problems."
The trade unions are wary of the Nov. 22-23 summit of EU leaders, which was called to set spending limits for the EU institutions through the year 2020. The unions fear that budget cuts will affect staffing and leave key programs without sufficient personnel. They are considering staging a strike during the summit, too.
Even an EU stalwart like Germany is seeking to keep a lid on its contributions — let alone a euroskeptic country like Britain, where Prime Minister David Cameron is demanding immediate action on EU staff costs.
"There are 16 percent of employees in the European Commission who earn over €100,000," Cameron said at the last summit, noting that Britain has already made sharp government cuts.
Allegations of a bloated EU administration in Brussels have a history of political success in Britain. The Eurosceptic UKIP party — or United Kingdom Independence Party — would like Britain to pull out of the EU altogether and happily found fodder in Thursday's strike.
"The eurocrat axiom seems to be, 'Cream for us, austerity is for the taxpaying plebs,'" UKIP leader Nigel Farage said. "The eurocrat sense of entitlement for money and power is frightening."
USF trade union President Sylvie Jacobs said that even though EU pay for lower-scale jobs is more than in the private sector, other EU pay scales are largely comparable with those from private multinational companies.
Bloated staffing is also in the eye of the beholder.
The European Commission employs 38,000 people, with the European Parliament adding 6,000 and the Council 3,500. They run the EU administration of everything from international trade to antitrust cases and the bloc's vast farm and fisheries policies, among many other issues.
On Thursday, even on a strike day, the EU started a big international trade case against China, chided Israel over its settlement policy and issued several court rulings.
EU personnel include everyone from commissioners to computer experts to cooks — and an army of translators for the bloc's 23 official languages.
By comparison, Britain's civil service counts some 464,000 people. Overall, Britain's public sector employs roughly 5.9 million people — a figure that includes local government employees such as school teachers, police, doctors and nurses.
Even though the timing of the strike was criticized, many people upheld the right to go on strike. That is deeply engrained in European society, where the much-vaunted welfare state has been built partly on the power of workers' willingness to shut down factories and let the streets do the talking to gain concessions that eventually provided a high standard of living.
"In a lot of countries now, they take to the streets to demand what they want," said Sofia Koller, a 22-year-old German student. "They have every right to make people listen."
On Thursday, though, that posed a problem for EU Industry Commissioner Antonio Tajani, a non-striker who found himself without translators when he had to explain the car industry to journalists.
"No Italian today. I apologize," he said.
Raphael Satter in London contributed to this report.