Jingle all the way and a very merry Christmas to all our readers out there from your brand-new Belgian correspondent. Looking back on a less festive season, called autumn, a number of factors nonetheless predict that this country is not so merry at all.

It’s the season to be jolly, and to show some solidarity toward those less fortunate. According to Belgian trade unions and civil society groups, this is what the country is sorely lacking: solidarity. By now, Charles Michel’s right-wing government that was elected last May, has an infamous reputation for its austerity measures that leave many in the lurch. Massive cuts have been part and parcel since the government’s instatement, and, frankly, people are already fed up with it. Meaning that they’re unwilling to stand for this until 2019, when the next democratic elections are bound to take place.

For that reason, civil society and trade unions decided to fight back and instated ‘Audacious Autumn’. One example of a grassroots movement that erupted from civil society is ‘Heart Above Hard’. ‘It seems this country is applying austerity measures for the sake of austerity’, its so-called ‘September Declaration’ discloses. The collective’s striking (pun intended) name and slogan emphasizes the heartlessness of the government’s raised state pension age (also for those who carry out the most heavy labour) and, especially, its ruthless budget cuts in a number of public sectors, education being one of them. As a countermeasure, groups like this collect autographs and support throughout the country. Together with trade unions, and supported by left-wing opposition parties, civil society calls for the solidarity this government lacks. It asks people to take it to the streets, and demonstrate.

Audacious Autumn (some would probably prefer to call it Outrageous Autumn) has indeed been monopolized by protests and strikes, first on four different regional levels, afterwards on a national scale. On the fifteenth of December, exactly ten days prior to this most cheerful holiday, the biggest strike of all took place. Trains refused to depart, as did buses, and airplanes. Some roads were blocked, so people not taking part in the strike and trying to get to work by other means than public transportation would have no luck in getting there after all.

Stores were asked to remain closed and those that declined, had to deal with angry protesters that forced them to do otherwise. The aggressive behaviour of some of the demonstrators did sometimes reach atrocious levels. When you are allowed into work only if you agree to tread on horse shit (I kid you not), solidarity seems to have lost its place in the mix. After all, shouldn’t those who protest also be supportive of those who choose not to? This question summarizes a lot of the debate happening in Belgium during the whole of Audacious Autumn.

The strikes nonetheless never intended to divide Belgium into two groups – quite the opposite. Some protestors even call out ‘Tous Ensemble!’ (French for ‘All together!’), a slogan that gained popularity when Belgium’s national soccer team, the Red Devils, were doing well before and especially during the last World Cup. Just like soccer success, collectively demonstrating their concern was supposed to bring employees together. Instead, a lot of commuters that preferred going to work were distraught by the continuous actions, albeit that a number of them did understand the reasons why.

The budget cuts the government deems necessary are applauded by the International Monetary Fund. The international organization urges Belgian politicians to take things even further. Ironically enough, its final report on Belgium’s economy and the ‘many welcome measures’ the government has set in motion came out on the 15th of December. Protesters that marched the streets on that exact day, however, claim that these decisions negatively impact Belgian’s hard-working lower and middle classes; the families that constitute this society’s backbone. Public services such as education and culture face gigantic budget cuts. Mobility is another sector in which austerity measures have taken their toll – again, not without controversy. The funds for public transportation will be cut, causing less frequent trains and more expensive railway tickets, while company cars are still all the rage. In the meantime, the Minister for Defence plans to buy expensive aircrafts, and, King Philip decides to take one of the army’s planes (including an entire crew) on a private family holiday.

To show their unease with the purchase of jet fighters, last Saturday, Belgian citizens forged (obviously fake) bank notes of six billion euros, the price tag of the aircrafts, and burned them. Their statement was undeniable. On the one hand, the government is throwing away tax money, while on the other, it imposes severe cuts that have an impact on all. Whether Belgian citizens agreed to partake in the strike or not, whether they think a strike is the most effective way to voice their concern, there’s clearly something rotten in the state of Belgium.

Strikes and demonstrations are not the only countermeasure civil society groups partake in. Those opposed to the government actively try to find alternative discourses. A petition has been instated to try demand a referendum on whether or not to instate a basic income for all, regardless of their (un)employment. Another path, which especially inspired opposition parties, is the capital gains tax-theory based on Thomas Piketty’s economic research on inequality. Each and every one of these (often grassroots) initiatives prove that Belgium’s social unrest goes further than four regional and one national series of strikes. A lot of people do not agree with the austerity discourse its right-wing government has enforced. They do believe in alternatives and they’re not afraid to show it.

So, merry Christmas from Belgium indeed. Celebrating the birth of Christ (and opening up a lot of presents) also means that winter is not just coming, it’s here. Audacious Autumn has come to an end. Will this mean social negotiations and the hibernation of civil society protest? Or will this mark a continuing divide between those who strike and those who decide not to? Will this be a wonderful winter, full of political dialogue, compromise, and (there’s that word again) solidarity? Or quite the opposite? . Pardon my French.

By Sarah Vandoorne

Political correspondent from Belgium

 

Sources:

http://www.bbc.com/news/business-30475230

http://www.globaluprisings.org/belgium-on-strike-december-15-2014/

http://www.demorgen.be/economie/herbeleef-alle-actie-op-de-nationale-stakingsdag-a2152341/

http://www.demorgen.be/nieuws/vandaag-is-geen-finale-het-is-slechts-een-tussenmatch-a2152366/

http://www.demorgen.be/economie/stakingsdag-niet-alleen-kommer-en-kwel-voor-ondernemers-en-politici-a2153022/

https://secure.avaaz.org/nl/petition/Federale_Overheid_van_Belgie_Aanvraag_tot_referendum_over_een_onvoorwaardelijk_basisinkomen/?dhOUCab&pv=6

http://deredactie.be/cm/vrtnieuws/videozone/programmas/journaal/2.36805?video=1.2182701

http://www.standaard.be/cnt/dmf20120320_173

http://www.imf.org/external/np/ms/2014/121514.htm

http://www.hartbovenhard.be/septemberverklaring/

http://www.standaard.be/cnt/dmf20141202_01407272

http://www.tijd.be/detail.art?a=9581593&n=3136&ckc=1

http://www.standaard.be/cnt/dmf20141215_01431785

http://www.vredesactie.be/vuurkracht