BRUSSELS (AFP) – Belgium ground to a halt in its biggest strike in years Monday as trade unions grounded flights, cut international rail links and shut sea ports to protest the new government’s austerity plans.
In the climax to a month of industrial action against new Prime Minister Charles Michel’s policies, striking workers stopped all public transport while most schools, businesses and government offices shut down.
Pickets also blocked traffic outside the Brussels headquarters of the European Union, a 28-nation bloc that has seen years of protests against austerity aimed at cutting debts that threatened the euro currency.
The Belgian strike came days after a day of protest in Italy against Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s ambitious reform plans, while there have been similar demonstrations in Spain and Greece in recent months.
“There has never been a strike this strong,” Marie-Helene Ska, the head of the Christian CSC union, was quoted as saying by the Belga news agency.
Belgian trade unions launched their movement last month with a march of more than 100,000 people in Brussels, which ended in violent protests that left dozens of police officers injured.
Unions went ahead with Monday’s general strike after premier Michel’s right-of-centre government refused to budge on plans to save 11 billion euros ($13.7 billion) over five years.
His coalition, which took office in October, intends to raise the retirement age from 65 to 67 from 2030, scrap plans for a usually automatic cost-of-living raise next year and introduce public sector cutbacks.
French-speaking Michel – who at 38 is Belgium’s youngest prime minister since 1840 – heads a coalition of three Flemish-speaking right-leaning parties and his own Francophone liberals.
The government formed five months after elections had hoped to calm a nation deeply divided between the richer Flanders and the poorer French-speaking Wallonia, but instead has led to weeks of industrial action.
The last national strike in Belgium was in 2012 against the government of socialist prime minister Elio di Rupo.
Belgian airspace was closed after air traffic controllers joined the strike, preventing flights from landing or taking off from airports in Brussels, Charleroi, Liege, Antwerp and Ostend for 24 hours from 2100 GMT Sunday.
Some 50,000 passengers have been affected as a total of 600 incoming and outgoing flights have been cancelled at Brussels international airport, spokeswoman Florence Muls said.
“All flights are cancelled. Everything is immobilised,” Muls told AFP, adding that it had affected some travellers trying to get away early for the Christmas holidays.
“It’s a real disaster” for the airports and passengers, Jean-Jacques Cloquet, managing director of Charleroi said on the RTBF news website, adding there would be a knock-on effect during the busy holiday period.
Eurostar rail services from Brussels to the British capital London and trains to the French capital Paris, Amsterdam in the Netherlands and the German city of Cologne have also been halted until early Tuesday.
Belgian rail SNCB said domestic inter-city train services were cancelled and trams, buses and metro services were all cancelled, leading many people to take the day off work and stay home.
The strike is also likely to affect post offices and rubbish collections, prisons and the courts.
Protesters erected road barriers that snarled traffic in Brussels and other cities, and could be seen warming their hands by flaming braziers while brandishing banners and handing out leaflets.
Union leader Ska denied that they wanted to bring down the government.