Paris protests find an echo in Belgian streets

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The Independent Online
Brussels - "Maastricht should not be carried on the backs of the workers," said Claude Schoonbrudt, a green-clad forest ranger who sounded his hunting horn as 40,000 Belgian public-service workers massed near the Place de Brouckere.

"Save our pensions," shouted the postal workers. "No to social-security cuts," chanted the train drivers. By mid-afternoon the centre of Brussels was echoing to the same cries that have been heard throughout France for the past three weeks.

Up on a hill, where the European institutions sit in an isolated cluster, officials were deaf to the protests. As they prepared for tomorrow's Madrid summit, when the 1999 deadline for introduction of the single currency will be reaffirmed, Commission officials insisted the protests in France and Belgium had nothing to do with Europe's drive towards a single currency. The European Union wanted to get "closer to the citizen", said Jacques Santer, the Commission President.

But all the evidence from the streets of Brussels suggested that citizens feel alienated and confused. Belgians, too, are rising up against the economic cuts imposed by their government as part of the effort to meet the Maastricht criteria for the single currency.

For the Belgian government, failure to make the economic grade and being left out of monetary union at the start would be devastating. A founder- member of the community, Belgium has never voiced - till now - serious doubts about the value of integration, and Jean-Luc Dehaene, leader of the governing coalition, seems determined to win the economic battle ahead.

Belgium's main problem is its public debt, standing at 134 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). The Maastricht criteria say countries wishing to join the European Monetary Union must aim for debt of nearer 60 per cent, or show significant signs of progress towards that target. The deficit is under better control, and is estimated to be 4.5 per cent of GDP this year, edging down towards the Maastricht 3 per cent target. But with unemployment at 9.8 per cent and slow growth, drastic measures are being imposed to bring the economy into line.

Trade unions say Mr Dehaene plans to slash more than 110 billion Belgian francs (pounds 2.5bn) from the 1996 budget, threatening jobs, pensions and pay.

The revolt in Belgium is not as widescale as in France, nor is it expected to spread so far. The government here is a broad-based coalition including the Socialists, unlike in France, where workers are rising up against the diktat of the Gaullist right. But the anxieties being voiced are perhaps equally significant for the future of the European Union, revealing as they do an undercurrent of discontent about Europe in one of most unquestioningly pro-European member-states.