General strike shuts Belgium

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BELGIUM'S unions yesterday put on a spectacular show of solidarity to organise the first general strike for more than half a century, bringing commerce, industry and education to a standstill.

In Brussels, strikers - swaddled against the bitter cold and carrying red flags - marched up one of the city's main streets, blocking traffic. Further along the same street, in the warmth of their offices, European Commission experts were re-drafting the plan for Growth, Competitiveness and Employment that Jacques Delors will present in a fortnight's time.

Belgium's wrath is symptomatic of the general malaise afflicting Europe as joblessness reaches epidemic proportions and politicians feverishly look for a cure. Sandwiched between the two European giants, France and Germany, Belgium has one of Europe's most generous welfare states - and consequently the continent's highest public debt. Until now a strong currency, thanks to formal monetary union with Luxembourg and informal links with Germany, and a higher-than average savings rate have kept the country from bankruptcy.

The administration, in struggling to put together a social pact that seeks to preserve the best of the social welfare system while dismantling the worst of its excesses, is in the same bind as its European partners. That the Prime Minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene, managed to steer the 'global pact' through a Christian-Democrat-Socialist coalition, is testament to his political ability as a consummate deal-maker.

But the greatest test will be to sell it to the unions, who want better guarantees that attempts to limit wage rises, transfer tax revenue, shave the social security budget and lower labour costs will not result in better company profits but more jobs.

Millions of workers across the country stayed at home or manned picket lines yesterday at an estimated cost to the country of 12bn Belgian francs (pounds 240m). There were no planes, trains or trams. Schools, banks, shops, industry, ports, were closed; most newspapers failed to appear and radio and television stations ran only a skeleton programme of broadcasts.

The all-out stoppage follows a co-ordinated pattern of regional strikes that will continue until 10 December - the first day of the European Union summit - when a second general strike is planned.

(Photograph omitted)