The Next Front Against Austerity

Austerity came late to Belgium. Now that it’s arrived, the battles to come will be an important test for both the Left and the European Union.

Belgians protest labor reforms in November 2014.

On December 15, Belgium shut down. The general strike that started before dawn and continued well into the night was no symbolic protest — it was meant to halt every bit of production in the country. The twenty-four hour “blocage total,” which topped off two months of protests and regional industrial action, was coordinated in response to the raft of austerity measures being enacted by Belgium’s new government.

All too familiar across the eurozone, the public spending cuts and wage suppression have come late to Belgium. While Greece, Spain, Britain, France, and others have each had their own iterations of austerity since the onset of the global recession, Belgian politics remained largely unchanged under a center-left coalition government — until this fall.

Prime Minister Charles Michel’s coalition government was sworn in on October 14, 2014, promising to balance the country’s budget by 2018 and dramatically cut the national debt. For the first time in twenty-five years, the governing coalition doesn’t include the francophone Socialist Party (PS). Taking their place as the largest party in the new coalition is the Flemish nationalist party (N-VA), which has a penchant for regional separatism and neoliberalism.

Belgium has a relatively small population of 11 million (the same as Greece), and is the thirteenth largest economy in the European Union. However, GDP growth in 2014 was a measly 0.9 percent, a rate not expected to improve this year. Like Britain, Belgium’s economy became dominated by the service sector following the break up of its colonial empire and deindustrialization. (History is not so easily erased, however — Belgium’s diamond industry is a leftover from the spoils of empire: a full 84 percent of the world’s rough diamonds pass through Antwerp’s Diamond Quarter.)

In November, the European commission gave Belgium until March 2015 to begin reducing its public debt from 105 percent of GDP to the 60 percent guideline for eurozone countries. The government responded with wage freezes, welfare spending cuts, and an increase in the retirement age from sixty-five to sixty-seven. But the severity of the measures do not in and of themselves explain the magnitude of the response.

The Unions

Belgium’s unions are powerful and combative. Arriving by bus from London on the day of the strike, our path into central Brussels was blocked by a bonfire, a gaggle of men dressed in the red winter coats of the socialist union, a line of meshed fencing, and what looked like an air-traffic controller signaling us to turn around.

At first glance, this kind of disruption appeared relatively spontaneous — surely some kind of wildcat strike or splinter group. However, on visiting pickets around the city, the deep-seated popular support and institutional strength of Belgian unions quickly became clear. The speed at which they are able to mobilize for such a strike is a testament to their organizational structures.

These powerful unions emerged in the nineteenth century, in a political and economic environment that Marx called a capitalist’s paradise. Belgium has three trade union federations: the socialist General Federation of Belgian Labor (FGTB), the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (CSC), and the General Confederation of Liberal Trade Unions of Belgium (CGSLB). Despite the CSC and the CGSLB both mobilizing for the strike, the ruling austerity coalition includes their respective electoral allies, the Flemish Christian Democrats and the Liberal Party.

This demonstrates two things. First, the extent to which these two federations, explicitly established to counter the spread of socialism, have often been dragged to the left by their memberships. Second, despite their strength, the political trajectory of these unions is limited by a narrow focus on short-term economic goals. For Belgium’s anti-austerity movement to achieve historic change, it will have to build inside and outside of the unions.

#15dec

So what does a Belgian general strike look like? First, transportation was at a near standstill. All flights in and out of Belgium were cancelled, ports were shut, there were no trains or local buses, and most schools and businesses were closed. In other words, most Belgians who weren’t on picket lines, spent a cold, wet Monday at home.

One protester described being let into the national train company headquarters late Sunday night: “It was like being in a movie — banks of computer monitors, massive blinking switch boards, and that ‘Big Red Button’ moment: the workers literally just switched off the national train lines at midnight.”

Pickets also took place outside an array of workplaces, from garbage depots to universities. At the University of Liège, thirty strikers entered administrative offices, sprayed fire extinguishers, and deflated car tires in the parking lot, forcing management to close. In a quieter-than-usual shopping district in central Brussels, fifty protesters blockaded some of the large chain stores that decided to stay open. At McDonald’s, delighted workers passed out free coffees to the freezing protesters blocking the entrance.

The following day saw an occupation of an unemployment office by a group of thirty people, with one hundred more gathered outside. Protests by unemployed workers have increased since the new rules on welfare benefits went into effect on January 1, excluding more than thirty thousand claimants.

But it was the picket line outside a large Audi car factory, in a suburb of Brussels, in the darkness of Monday morning, that best captured the spirit of the day. Here, entrenched union infrastructure met youthful enthusiasm. The gazebos, sound systems, hot drinks, and bonfires of the unions mingled with the bicycle convoys of youths, teachers driving carloads of school students, and “autonomous mobile strike support cars.”

One striking teacher described organizing with immigrant youth to visit the Audi factory, where most of the workers are white. One of those with her explained its importance: “It challenges assumptions on both sides — workers see how the young aren’t ‘lazy immigrants,’ and the youth see that the workers aren’t racist.” Developing these connections into stable links and alliances in the coming months will be key.

Austerity Meets Resistance

How does Belgium’s fledgling anti-austerity movement — launched from the very heart of the European Union (EU) — fit into current eurozone politics? What tensions and tendencies does it bring into focus? Two key intersections at which this movement finds itself are an ascendant left in Greece and Spain, and regional separatist pressures across the continent.

Since protests began in Belgium last November, Syriza has toppled the old guard in Greece, and Podemos is looking to do the same in Spain. While these two parties are not the saviors of Europe, their meteoric rises provide an encouraging backdrop for Belgian anti-austerity.

Marcelo Amendáris, a member of Podemos’s Belgian branch who was also involved in Spain’s 15M movement, told me that Belgium has “a lot to learn” from Spain, noting that “there is nothing new here – cuts across the public sector and a movement against this — the main difference is that it is only just starting here.”

Another key difference is that there hasn’t been a Belgian movement comparable to 15M or Greece’s “movement of the squares.” The established unions have been the primary conduit for anti-austerity sentiment. But with more strikes and protests planned in the coming months, it is too early to rule out the possibility of an independent upsurge.

Separatist Pressures

As elsewhere in Europe, Belgium is facing internal separatist pressures. The largest party of the new austerity coalition — the nationalist N-VA — pushes for the eventual secession of Flanders from the economically weaker francophone Wallonia region, in the southern half of the country.

This parallels regional and national independence pressures across Europe, from Catalonia in Spain to Scotland in the United Kingdom. While the politics of these movements spans the ideological spectrum, together they pose problems for the EU and, in the case of Belgium, for the Left. As the leading Flemish nationalist Hugo Schiltz put it, “Federalization is sanitization.”

In other words, Flemish independence is equated with economic efficiency — the region would extricate itself from the backward, socialist-inflected economy of Wallonia, weakened by deindustrialization since the 1960s. This is not an immediate threat: the N-VA will not attempt secession unilaterally or during this term. But, as elsewhere in Europe, the way in which the new Belgian anti-austerity movement navigates this nationalist, regionalist current will be crucial.

For a state comprised of two linguistically distinct communities, the question of regionalism — and how the Left has dealt with it — has a long and complex history. Flemish nationalism has not always been combined with a neoliberal economic program, as is the case with the N-VA.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Flemish nationalism was somewhat anti-imperialist in character, a struggle against elite imposition of French as the official language in parliament, universities, and legal proceedings. Formal equality was not achieved until the language legislation of 1932. Even then, Flanders was still economically weaker than Wallonia, which was the first region in continental Europe to industrialize. Only since the 1960s, with the decline of Walloon heavy industry, have the economic tables turned.

The way in which the Left has approached the regional question has changed alongside political and economic developments. Following the legal recognition of the Flemish language in 1932, Flemish nationalism solidified its links with the Catholic Church, establishing a political conservatism that has endured.

As Ernest Mandel noted in 1963, the failure of the then largely francophone Socialist Party to align itself with the progressive origins of Flemish nationalism was a historic error still felt today. While the current anti-austerity movement is not split by region, it must contend with a political landscape pulled by right-wing Flemish separatism.

The Future

With Syriza’s victory, European austerity is facing its staunchest test since the crisis began. This will be the year we find out whether the EU can be forced to bend.

Belgium, with its belated austerity pitted against militant unions, will be another testing ground. It is precisely this timing that makes the anti-austerity movement in the country worthy of close international attention. The nascent movement has the rare opportunity to learn from recent history and capitalize on being the latecomer. If it can link the national struggle with its Southern European counterparts, it could be a headache for the EU technocrats in Brussels.

Belgium’s entry onto the stage could even begin to nullify the cultural determinism that says Greek and Spanish debt is somehow the result of “slothful Mediterranean laziness.” It was a good sign when even the Belgian Socialist Party — traditionally allied to Greece’s Pasok — recently refused to rule out support for Syriza.

When the general strike began, union leaders made firm promises about the struggle ahead: Christmas would be cancelled.  Though this may have been a slight exaggeration (there have been no strikes since December 15), we can expect more this year as the cuts deepen. Whether they result in a change in government policy, an electoral challenge, a shift across Europe, or none of the above, remains to be seen.

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