Belgium's main port paralysed by strike

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The Independent Online
EUROPE'S second-biggest port, Antwerp, was paralysed yesterday as thousands of Belgian workers responded to a union strike call to pressure the government to reconsider its plans for slashing the public deficit, the highest in the European Union.

Belgium, where even taking out health insurance involves considering the politicial complexion of the insurer, has a highly unionised workforce.

They are split down linguistic and political lines but the two biggest, representing the Socialists and the Christian Democrats, command 2.5 million members.

The 24-hour stoppage was deemed a success, although patchily followed. The strikers and pickets were overwhelmingly from French-speaking Wallonia, where yesterday there was no public transport on roads or ships and barges on Belgium's important waterways. Hospitals were short-staffed and lessons were delayed in many schools; several banks stayed closed, as did the GB supermarket chain, whose management recently announced 4,000 job losses. Public officials, whose numbers have helped exacerbate the country's economic problems, were helpfully already enjoying an official day off.

The government was anxious not to comment on the day of action, which is one in a series of stoppages designed to culminate in a general strike on 10 December. The date has been chosen to inflict maximum embarrassment, for on that day EU heads of government will gather in Brussels to discuss how to boost European recovery and cut dole queues.

Like all European governments, Belgium is desperately struggling to limit the public purse as it watches interest payments on a spiralling debt devour revenues. With an economy that is 70 per cent dependent on exports, Belgium is badly hit by the recession elsewhere. Saved in the past by a high savings rate, even that money has been eaten into, thanks to the recent devaluation of the Belgian franc.

The government coalition has launched an all-out attack on social-security spending, suggested a wage freeze, new property taxes and, most controversially of all, an end to automatic wage indexation.

But the unions have refused to cut the ribbon of the reform package, let alone admire the contents. The Socialists walked out of negotiations first, although their Christian Democrat partners were prepared to talk longer, prompting an intra-union split that was hastily repaired to exert maximum pressure on the government yesterday.

As the coalition partners work towards an acceptable compromise, they are aware that unless they can sell it to the Socialist wing, the government is likely to fall. This is perhaps the greatest incentive to deal, since the coalition is so shaky there would probably have to be new elections and the Christian conservatives are already trailing so badly in opinion polls it is unlikely that they would remain the dominant force in a new line-up.

Savings are to be made on family allowance payments by reducing support to high-income households and possibly charging those without children. Pensioners with extra savings will also be targeted. The Socialists have complained these methods are unfairly directed at wage-earners and social-security beneficiaries and want to see the burden spread to include property owners and those with investment income - the very constituency of the Christian Democrats.