Belgium faces first mass protest against new government's austerity policies

BRUSSELS (Reuters, AFP) - Around 100,000 Belgians marched through central Brussels on Thursday in protest at the new government’s proposed reforms and cost-cutting measures, the first in a series of demonstrations and strikes planned over coming weeks.  

Belgium’s centre-right government, installed only a month ago, has pledged to raise the retirement age and limit scope for early retirement, cancel an inflation-linked wage hike due next year and cut the health and social security budgets.  

Unions estimated that around 120,000 workers, from dockers to metalworkers, as well as students, had gathered to protest in the Belgian capital. Police put the number at 100,000.  

The unions plan a series of regional strikes every Monday starting Nov. 24, culminating in a national strike on Dec. 15.

"The whole raft of government measures create a potentially explosive cocktail," Marie-Helene Ska, secretary general of the leading Belgian union, CSC, warned in the newspaper Le Soir.

The unions as well as the socialist, green and extreme left parties oppose a decision to scrap plans for the usual automatic cost-of-living raises next year.

They also reject plans to raise the retirement age from 65 to 66 from 2025 and to 67 in 2030.

The new government is also aiming to impose cost-cutting measures on the civil service as well as in the fields of culture and scientific research.

"We have made an agreement on a government and an agreement on a budget which will balance Belgium's books by 2018," the 38-year-old Michel said last month after the coalition was formed.

The coalition groups three Flemish parties - the nationalist New Flemish Alliance, the Christian Democrat CD&V and the liberal Open VLD - and Michel's French-speaking liberals.

The new government is likely to face the same problems as before, most notably the unavoidable division between Belgium's Flemish-speaking north, which tends to be more conservative, and a French-speaking, more liberal south.

Over the years, greater powers have been devolved to the regions to ease communal tensions, with separate governments elected in Flanders, Wallonia and for the bilingual Brussels capital region.

The last large nationwide demonstrations against austerity were held in February 2013 and attracted up to 40,000 people.

For Thursday’s march, rail operator SNCB said it had sold 80,000 tickets in advanced group bookings for travel to Brussels and had laid on 15 additional trains. Unions had also booked 500 buses to get protesters from all over the country to the capital.

Otherwise, public transport in Brussels was severely restricted. Buses and tram services in other Belgian cities were also reduced.

“The signal is clear. People are angry, livid. This government’s policies are totally unbalanced,” said ACV union chief Marc Leemans.  

The Socialists, excluded from government for the first time in 26 years, have complained that while workers were hit, the rich were unaffected. “I share the concern of the people and the measures of the government are unjust,” said former prime minister Elio Di Rupo.  

Prime Minister Charles Michel invited leaders of Belgium’s three main union branches to talk on Thursday afternoon. It was not immediately clear whether the union representatives would attend.  

Central bank governor Luc Coene said Belgium needed reforms to cuts a public sector debt of around 100 percent of annual output and to raise competitiveness. He said a failure to act now would simply increase the problem for the next generation.

“The people who go on strike against these savings measures, are actually saying to their children: get lost. I find that really bad,” Coene said in an interview in Trends magazine.