Planned austerity measures in Belgium spark massive anti-government protests


Credit: Reuters/Yves Herman

Credit: Reuters/Yves Herman

Tens of thousands of left-wing trade unionists march in Brussels to stop budget cuts

Violence erupted in Brussels last week when over 100 000 protesters gathered in the streets of Brussels to protest the new government’s proposed budget cuts.

Fighting escalated quickly after a peaceful demonstration organized by trade unions and left-wing parties.

Protesters overturned cars and ignited fires as riot police failed to stop the demonstrations using water cannons and tear gas.

Amidst the screaming and bantering and plumes of smoke billowing from burning cars, activists hurled stones and lit flares and fireworks.

The police met the trade unionists armed with full riot gear and truncheons but activists were unperturbed as direct confrontation broke out. Officials say that at least 50 people were injured, and 30 detained so far.

The protests, which began peacefully, were part of a plan devised by trade unions to oppose Prime Minister Charles Michel’s austerity measures.

The new government plans to raise the pension age, freeze wages, and make cuts to the public sector all to meet EU-enforced targets. There are several strikes planned in the coming days, with a general strike across Belgium being organized for Dec. 15.

“They are hitting the workers, the unemployed,” said Phillipe Dubois, a worker from the industrial region of Liege.

“They are not looking for money where it is, I mean people with a lot of money.”

The government says the steep budget cuts are necessary if the country is to reduce the deficit and keep it at an affordable level. No one is buying it.

Marie-Helene Ska, secretary general of the union CSC, says that the new government isn’t looking in the right place.

“The government tells us and all of the parties tell us that there’s no alternative. We don’t contest that they have to find 11 billion euros [$13.6 billion], but we’ve been saying for a long time that it’s possible to find this money elsewhere, rather than in the pockets of the workers,” she said.

Rail companies even lowered their ticket prices to allow more people to travel to Brussels where the protests took place.

Unions reported that approximately 130,000 people attended last week’s protest, while police say the number was closer to 100,000. The last time such demonstrations against austerity took place was in Feb. 2013, bringing an estimated 40 000 people.

Workers from steel firms, ports, the post office and school boards are all planning a work slow-down next month.

In response, the Belgian cabinet has planned a crisis meeting with the country’s three main unions, but any compromise is unlikely to favour the unions.

Belgium has a long-standing tradition of collective bargaining between employers and employees.

Their long lines of coalition governments, often representing a full spectrum of public opinion, have been able to guide the country through many periods of unrest and disagreement.

However, the current government, formed by three pro-business parties and the centrist Christian Democrats is the first in decades to try and push a staunchly free-market agenda.

As part of their economic plan, the government is not implementing next year’s automatic cost-of-living raises, a decision strongly opposed by green, socialist, and left-wing trade union parties. The government is also planning to raise the retirement age from 65 to 66 in 2025 and to 67 in 2030.

Belgium isn’t unique in this regard. After decades of cradle-to-grave welfare, countries across the European Union are having to deal with the fact they’ve been living far beyond their means.

The debts have to be paid, whether people want to admit it or not.

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