BRUSSELS – Hundreds of thousands of Europe’s beleaguered citizens went on strike or snarled the streets of several capitals Wednesday, at times clashing with riot police, as they demanded that governments stop cutting benefits and create more jobs.

Workers with jobs and without spoke of a “social emergency” crippling the world’s largest economic bloc, a union of 27 nations and half a billion people.

In Madrid and Barcelona, where the crisis is hitting particularly hard, protesters and police fought street battles resulting in dozens injured and numerous arrests.

The protests were met with tear gas in Italy and Spain, but were largely limited to the countries hardest hit by the austerity measures designed to bring government spending into line with revenues. Wealthier nations like Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark saw only small, sedate demonstrations.

Governments backing the line of stringent austerity were not impressed by the show of force.

“We must nevertheless do what is necessary: break open encrusted labor markets, give more people a chance to work, become more flexible in many areas,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. “We will of course make this clear … in talks with the unions.”

Spanish Economy Minister Luis de Guindos spoke of “a long crisis that has meant sacrifice and uncertainty,” but said: “The government is convinced that the path we have taken is the only possible way out.”