Belgians protest austerity measures, 2011-2012

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Timing
Time Period:  
02 December
2011
to
31 January
2012
Location and Goals
Country: 
Belgium
Location City/State/Province: 
Brussels
Goals: 
The goals of this case were to prevent the Belgian government from implementing austerity measures, in particular raising the minimum age of retirement
 

On 2 December 2011, tens of thousands of Belgian citizens took to the streets in the capital, Brussels, to protest the austerity measures taken by the then-incoming government. The new socialist prime minister was going to be sworn in the week after this protest to try and fix the financial crisis that had left Belgium without a government for 19 months. The government needed to save 11.3 billion euros in the year of 2012 to decrease its budget deficit below the EU limit of 3% of gross domestic product (GDP). The potential cuts included reducing unemployment benefits, limited early retirement, and reducing spending in the public sector. One of the largest and most controversial effects of these measures was the raise in retirement age. Formerly, Belgium citizens were able to retire at the age of 55 for full pension. The new austerity plan would change the retirement age to 65. It was this change that incited citizens to protest.

These citizens marched on 2 December 2011 to the capital to voice their opposition to these cuts. Included in the demonstration were metal workers, public service employees, brewing industry workers, builders, and teachers. Protestors dressed as Belgian Socialist leader Eliio Di Rupo, donning wigs and giant bow ties. Additionally, these protestors wore green, red, and blue—the colors of the three main Belgian unions.

The protests on 2 December 2011 did not convince the government to stop with its austerity measures. In escalation, on 20 December 2011, the public sector unions called for a one-day general strike to begin two days later.

As planned, on 22 December 2011, Belgian workers in the public transport, schools, hospitals, and government buildings began their strike against the pension reforms. The Belgian rail system stopped operating late during the night before, and other forms of public services, such as buses and the metro, shut down for the 24-hour strike. The strike was the second show of union opposition to the government’s austerity cuts. The strikers viewed the strike as a success because it united union members in anger and determination.

Still, the government continued with its austerity measures.

The European Union (EU) was to host a summit meeting on the euro zone crisis at the end of January 2012. The purpose of the summit was to discuss ways to boost Belgium’s economic growth and increase job opportunities. The government had approved an austerity package that would save Belgium $11.3 billion euros of its state budget, thus avoiding an EU fine. On 17 January 2012, trade unions called for a second general strike and protests during the summit. Although this advanced warning allowed EU members to consider rescheduling the summit, they decided to continue as planned and hold it on 30 January 2012.

Three main organizations, including the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions, joined together to organize this 24-hour strike, scheduled to overlap with the summit. On 30 January 2012, private and public sector workers across Belgium stopped work. The strike brought Belgium to a near standstill on the day that EU leaders were to meet in Brussels for the summit.

Actions began at approximately 2:00 AM on 30 January 2012, when rail workers stopped trains. Then, at 3:00 AM, workers shut down tram, subway, and bus services. There were no domestic or international rail services. Public transportation was stilled to a halt.

At 6:00 AM, dock workers stopped working and closed down the terminals at the Port of Antwerp, a decision that cost the port 1 million euros in losses in added value every hour.

Production halted at Audi and Volvo car company factories. Throughout the day, workers held protests outside of an Audi car plant, dancing and drumming around a fire outside.

In addition, workers protested at airlines. Although pilots were angry about the austerity measures, only 10% of flights were cancelled or affected by the 24-hour strike.

Protestors blocked highways and crossings into Germany and Luxembourg and established road blockades to block industrial zones and stall the country’s production. Protestors used flares, flags, and whistles to slow down and disrupt traffic on the roads. Additionally, snow slowed down transportation. Because of all of these effects on transportation, many EU leaders had to fly into a military air base 20 miles from the capital out of a fear that strikers would shut down the international airport. These leaders did this so that the summit could continue on despite the strike.

The strike extended beyond transportations, as many schools, government offices, factories, and supermarkets shut down for the 24-hour stoppage, too. Employees at a Coca-Cola factory walked off of their job. Some citizens took the streets to protest. During the day, one man dressed as Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo and walked with a megaphone as a part of a symbolic strike organized by the CSC Christian Union of Mons-La Louviere in front of Di Rupo’s residence in Mons.

These actions, though, had a minimal impact on the summit. Austerity measures continued, as did the summit. And, the strike angered many citizens who were frustrated by the lack of public transportation. A public survey showed that only 21% of the population supported the strike. Although the strike was able to shut down Belgium for the day and send a message, the government did not listen to this message. The summit continued largely undisturbed and the Belgium government kept seeking to extend austerity measures. The campaign, as a whole, was unable to stop the Belgium government from its budget cuts. While this campaign seemed to end as austerity measures were implemented after January 2012, Belgians lat erresumed protests as the government continued to implement new measures.

Research Notes
Sources: 
Telesurenglish. "General strike paralyzes Belgium amid the EU Summit." January 30, 2012.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H6_WqHXL4QE.

PressTVGlobalNews. "General strike hits Belgium at EU Summit." January 30, 2012.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3gW-VTEd6k

Blenkinsop, Philip. "Belgium Extends Austerity Measures By 1.82 Billion Euros." March 10, 2012.http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/10/belgium-austerity-measures_n_1337130.html

EUBusiness. "Belgian unions call general strike for EU summit date." January 17, 2012.http://www.eubusiness.com/news-eu/belgium-social.eld

AFP. "Strikes cause chaos in Belgium ahead of EU summit." January 29, 2012.http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5gWlmxfgqOXqy9FmIA-kKASyk8p2A?docId=CNG.d06e4c31298eb1a148c1f52f78fa276d.231

Castle, Stephen. "Angry Over Austerity Measures, Belgian Workers Go on Strike." January 30, 2012.http://travel.nytimes.com/2012/01/31/world/europe/strike-grips-belgium-ahead-of-european-union-summit.html?_r=2&

CNN Wire Staff. "Belgium strikes disrupt travel as EU summit begins." January 30, 2012.http://www.cnn.com/2012/01/30/world/europe/belgium-strike/index.html?iref=allsearch

Ames, Paul. "Belgium hit by massive strike as leaders fly in for crisis summit." January 30, 2012.http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/120130/belgium-hit-general-strike-leaders-euro-zone-crisis-summit

Clapham, Andrew. "Belgian Strike Halts Trains, Buses, Paralyzes Port Services." January 30, 2012.http://www.businessweek.com/news/2012-01-30/belgian-strike-halts-trains-buses-paralyzes-port-services.html

"Belgians Protest Austerity Measures," Press TV, 2 December 2011, http://www.presstv.com/detail/213428.html

KUNA, "Belgium: Public Sector Strike On Thursday To Protest Reforms" Eurasia Review, 20 December 2011, http://www.eurasiareview.com/20122011-belgium-public-sector-strike-on-thursday-to-protest-reforms/

Ames, Paul. 30 January 2012. 14 April 2013 <http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/120130/belgium-hit-general-strike-leaders-euro-zone-crisis-summit#1>.

Casert, Raf. 30 January 2012. 14 April 2013 <http://cnsnews.com/news/article/belgium-strikes-day-eu-summit>.

Deighton, Ben. Ed. Sebastian Moffett and Maria Golovina. 30 January 2012. 14 April 2013 <http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/01/26/uk-belgium-strikes-idUSLNE80P01G20120126>.

Traynor, Ian. 29 January 2012. 14 April 2013 <http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2012/jan/29/eu-summit-brussels-disruption-strike>.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Aileen Eisenberg and John Pontillo, 14/04/2013