BRUSSELS (AFP) – Belgium risks coming to a virtual standstill Monday as the biggest national strike for years grounds all flights, halts public transport and severs international train links in protest at the new government’s austerity policies.
The strike, which is the climax of a union movement that began last month with a huge march and violent protests in Brussels, will also likely close schools, businesses, factories and government offices.
Unions say there is “no choice” but to go ahead with the strike after the right-of-centre government of Prime Minister Charles Michel pushed ahead with plans to save 11 billion euros ($13.7 billion) over five years.
French-speaking Michel, who at 38 is Belgium’s youngest prime minister since 1840, heads a government coalition of three Flemish-speaking right-leaning parties and his own French-speaking liberals.
The formation of the government in October, five months after elections, was meant to bring some calm to a nation deeply divided between the richer Flanders and the poorer French-speaking Wallonia.
But Belgian unions oppose a decision by Michel’s coalition government to scrap plans for a usually automatic cost-of-living raise next year. They also reject public sector cutbacks and plans to raise the retirement age from 65 to 67 from 2030.