Belgium is an unlikely candidate for extremes.  However, though the country was damned with faint praise by Monty Python as a superior tourist destination to Finland, its capital Brussels was the ‘whited sepulchre’ that Charlie Marlow recalled before embarking to the Belgian-run ‘Congo Free State’, on a journey into the heart of darkness in Joseph Conrad’s eponymous novel.  Ravaged as a staging post in two world wars, it was rocked by a wide-ranging paedophile scandal in the 1990s that has only been eclipsed by the revelations post-Jimmy Savile in the UK.  Austerity though is now top of the agenda, as it is across the European Union, while the USA surges ahead in growth and employment, having never deployed hard-hitting cutbacks of its own.  And Belgians are defying the mild-mannered persona thrust upon them by outsiders.

The protests swiftly followed the formation of a new Belgian government in October (after the country had been without central leadership for five months because of discord between the Walloon and Flemish regions).  A four-party coalition of Belgium’s main centre-right/nationalist parties came together, excluding the Socialist Party from any say in government for the first time in 26 years.  The 39-year-old Prime Minister, Charles Michel is Belgium’s youngest premier since 1841 and his pro-business Reformist Movement is determined to push through austerity policies to save the Benelux member €11 billion over five years.  The changes include plans to raise the retirement age to 67, delaying a wage rise in line with inflation for civil servants (Belgian law mandates wage rises keep pace with inflation) and cutting health and social security benefits (the latter involving the unemployed working for the remittances).

On the 6th of November, at least 100,000 people marched in Brussels, the largest demonstration since the general strike of 1960-61.  Industries affected by striking employees in November were transport, public transit, ports, steel, pharmaceutical, chemical and aerospace.  Some of the overzealous crowd even occupied the Federation of Belgian Corporations, while violent clashes occurred between police and a group of agitators that had splintered off from the main host of marchers near the Porte de Hal area, resulting in the deployment of water cannon and baton charges by the authorities and thirty arrests.  A 112 policemen were also injured in the fracas.  Ironically, there were some Dutch neo-Nazi rabble-rousers fighting the police who carried leaflets denouncing the Socialist Party which supported the mass rally.

Michel’s predecessor as prime minister, Elio Di Rupo, claimed to be one with the campaigners but Deputy Prime Minister Alexander De Croo derided the Socialist leader, telling L’Avenir, ‘Elio is marching with people who were marching against him’ – Di Rupo’s government had also imposed billions of euros in cuts.  De Croo promised that the administration would negotiate in good faith with the unions but these discreet meetings were unproductive and the drumbeat of civil disobedience became insistent again.

On the 8th of December, severe disruptions crippled transport services across Belgium, leading to suspensions of international high-speed train journeys, including Eurostar (trains from across the Channel terminating at Lille).  Moreover, industrial action by baggage handlers at Charleroi international airport led to almost half of all flights being cancelled.  While underground trains, buses and trams were at a standstill, those who still struggled to work were blocked from entering some industrial areas by pickets.  Many children did not complain at the partial or wholesale closure of a raft of schools.

The 8th of December action was merely the overture to the grand strike on the 15th of December, the culmination of the previous protests.  Beginning on the night of Sunday the 14th with interference to train and flight schedules, it steadily built up to afflict the entire nation with public transportation, schools, government offices, businesses and manufacturing facilities idle, by and large.  Unions hailed it a great success but Flemish business groups countered by saying a majority of firms had seen all their workers report for duty, possibly partially reflecting the presence of pro-Flanders participation in government decision-making.

Having ridden out the storm on the 15th of December and looking for the strikes to peter out over the Christmas period, Michel and his government must have been quite pleased with themselves.  Even when one week later, Michel had french fries dumped over his head and was copiously squirted with mayonnaise by anti-austerity activists, he retained his sense of good humour, continuing his speech in his stained suit and apologising to his audience for smelling of mayonnaise.  The culinary assault used arguably Belgium’s best loved food concoction (bar chocolate) so it could be said Michel was anointed in patriotism the way monarchs were with ambergris (whale oil).

And this is the nub for those opposed to anti-austerity policies – they are making no headway in their demands.  European governments have learnt how to implement austerity successfully by keeping the middle-classes onside, no matter the howls of anger from those outside the process.  The shock value of strikes has subsided and become blunted by overuse.  A government spokesman respectfully acknowledges the size of crowds and then business continues as usual.  Some in Ireland have found innovative ways of civil disobedience but until anti-cuts groups in general change tactics and devise new ways to wrong-foot those in power, their protests will remain on the wrong side of history.

Protests Correspondent, Europe

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