Belgium: mass anti-war and anti-cuts demonstration in Brussels

Need for unity in struggle and a political alternative

On 19 March a massive demonstration took place in the streets of Brussels. Three demonstations joined together and formed one big demonstration, with probably 80,000 present from all over Europe. These were the Belgian Youth March for Jobs, a protest called by the European trade Union Confederation (ETUC), and an anti-Iraq war protest called by the European Social Forum. The demonstration showed the strength and possibilities of a European-wide mobilisation and the growing radicalisation and a readiness for action amongst rank and file workers. The lack of a workers’ political alternative also made it possible for the establishment parties to have a presence on the protests.

Youth march for jobs: opposition against the government or loud music in support of the government?

The CWI in Belgium (LSP/MAS) has campaigned for the Youth March for Jobs for several months. We took the initiative for this protest march, last April, when we called upon the youth organisations of the Belgian trade unions to organise such a demonstration. We wrote that it is important to resist the undermining of working conditions and the wages, a process which is enforced by government measures against the unemployed.

We also said it is important to unite different movements of struggle in opposition against present government policies. With the plans to privatise and ‘liberalise’ the public services, the assaults on the wages in the private sector, the longer working week etc. it will be necessary to build a force capable of defeating these attacks.

The trade union youth followed our logic up to a certain point. They did take up the call to organise a Youth March for Jobs, but they also tried to avoid politics being present on this demonstration. The loud music they organised on the protest was used to avoid a radical message. It was no coincidence that people like the social democratic minister, Vandenbroucke, or the Flemish social democratic party chair, Stevaert, were able to join the protest with a contingent. The protest probably had to be even more a sort of carnival to avoid people seeing the hypocrisy of their presence. The LSP/MAS has protested against the presence of establishment politicians on demonstrations, with slogans such as "Neo-liberals are anti social".

We have been campaigning for months for this Youth March. We did not limit ourselves to stressing the 19 March protest, but we also emphasised the need to build campaigning forces on the ground. During our build up over the last few months we received a very positive response from the unemployed. Even though many of unemployed did not participate in protests, they did look forward to the Youth March for Jobs. We also used this occasion to build stronger support on the ship floor in factories and other workplaces.

The campaign for the Youth March was a success for the LSP/MAS. The initiative was still ‘early’ for many, in the sense that passive discontent on the issues of growing unemployment, low paid jobs etc. has not yet translated into an active opposition. But this initiative came at a right moment, following recent protests like the Belgian 50,000 strong national demo on 21 December 2004, the movement of care workers, and other struggles.

Euro demonstration: French CGT demonstrates against the European Constitution

The biggest contingent on the Brussels protest was the French trade union federation, the CGT. It was obvious that the past few weeks of massive union protests in France had a huge impact on the demonstration in Brussels. Thousands of CGT supporters came to Brussels. They shouted slogans against the new European Constitution and the neo-liberal policies of the EU. While the CGT leadership, at first, did not speak out against the EU Constitution, they had to change their position under pressure of their rank and file.

This shows, on the one hand, the contradiction between the rank and file and their readiness for struggle against the neo-liberal EU Constitution, and, on the other hand, the position of the trade union leadership. In the case of the CGT leadership, they had to give in and speak out against the EU-Constitution.

This European demonstration was also against the ‘Bolkestein directive’, which is aimed at ‘liberalising’ services in Europe and driving down wages and conditions. On the demonstration it was clear that the whole capitalist project of the EU was not accepted. The European Constitution was an important issue on the protest, as it is a new symbol of the neo-liberal European Union.

Impressive mobilisation

Before the demonstration, the union leadership expected about 50,000 demonstrators. In the end the turn out was a lot bigger. The pro-Establishment press speaks about 60,000, but it probably was more. It is difficult to have exact figures, but we think 80,000 protesters are realistic. The turnout was very good and it was clear that the idea of a European-wide mobilisation has been established.

On the demonstration we also saw limitations. The official position of the ETUC, supporting the EU’s ‘Lisbon Agenda’, showed the need for a combative and fighting union leadership, which is able to link broader mobilisations to local struggles, to unite those struggles. At the same time, some unions used the opposition to the EU Constitution as a diversion away from more immediate battles against the bosses and government attacks. The turnout from the Belgian trade unions was very limited and their leaders did not link this protest with the actions of the past few months.

Finally, the absence of a political alternative was obvious. This made it possible for the Establishment parties to be present. Almost every traditional party in Belgium had a contingent. Besides the social democrats and the Greens, we also saw the Christian democrats and the right wing Flemish nationalists. These government parties, of course, were not there to show opposition to the present policies, for which they are responsible.

The setting up of a political instrument which defends the interests of the workers and their families would be a fundamental step forward and would make it more difficult for these tradition parties to keep up their hypocrisy. Such parties could add to the immediate struggles a socialist political perspective which would strengthen the relation of forces for the workers and youth.

CWI at the demo

We had our own contingent on the Youth March for Jobs. A couple of hundred joined us and shouted slogans against unemployment and for a socialist alternative. Because of the big turnout for the demonstration, people found it confusing and very chaotic finding the meeting point, which also made it difficult to find our contingent. Despite this difficulty we managed to organise many workers and youth, including comrades from France, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain.

We distributed a leaflet in different languages. We also sold papers and pamphlets, and distributed leaflets. We sold over 500 copies of our Belgian papers (Alternative Socialiste and Socialistisch Links) and over 100 copies of our French and Dutch papers. The French comrades sold 75 issues of their paper l’Egalité. We sold around 400 euro worth of political literature and we also raised campaigning funds by selling drink and food.

The next step will be to build on this strong campaign and to step up our campaigns for decent jobs with a decent wage, and for a shorter working week without loss of pay. The Youth March and the European demonstration was just the first step.

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March 2005