Belgium: New government is no reason to celebrate

General strike called for 30 January against austerity

After 530 days of institutional crisis and intense negotiations, Belgium finally has a government, with Elio Di Rupo (from the Socialist Party, the francophone social-democracy) as Prime minister. The final deal came just a few hours after the rating agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded Belgium’s credit from AA+ to AA, piling pressure from the markets on the negotiators to act quickly to sort the political crisis out and engage in austerity policies without any further delay.

The true nature of this new government, composed of six parties, has been made crystal clear from its inception: the politicians reached a deal on an austerity budget for 2012 which set the tone for an avalanche of attacks against the workers and their families. After having injected billions of euro into the banking system in the last years to save it from collapse, the ruling politicians are now ready to make workers and ordinary people, the “99%”, pay for the bill, in order to preserve the profits of the ultra-rich 1% who are responsible for the mess.

The essence of the 2012 budget is to take €11.3 billion from the pockets of the most vulnerable layers of society: the sick, the elderly, the unemployed,…This include €2.5 billion worth of cuts in the healthcare expenditure, new attacks on unemployment benefits, and a pension counter-reform aimed at keeping older public sector workers at work longer – while there are over 600,000 unemployed in the country – to earn less in the end, while pensions in Belgium are already among the lowest in Europe.

No choice?

To put it bluntly, this is the biggest austerity plan ever concocted in the whole Belgium’s history. Hundreds of thousands of workers, unemployed and pensioners will be thrown into poverty as a result.

According to the bosses and their politicians, there is “no other choice”. While almost everyone, even right-wing economists, now agree that the austerity policies have recessionary effects, the Belgian capitalist class goes ahead with the same spiral that we have already seen elsewhere in Europe. The same devastating effects will result.

Like former social-democrat Prime Ministers in Spain, Portugal or Greece, Di Rupo appeals to the people for their ‘sense of responsibility’. The ‘markets’, he argued, do not leave him any other choice. In the same vein, the pension minister Vincent Van Quickenborne argues that there is an “absolute necessity” to reform the pensions system “because the European Commission imposes on us to do so”. This is what their democracy has been reduced to.

All these measures are justified supposedly to “avoid the worse”. But most of the workers understand very well that the worst is still to come, and that this austerity plan is only the first in a long series. According to the governor of the National Bank, 1 to 2 billion euros of additional saving measures will be needed by March 2012.

The liberal parties, pushed from behind by the FEB (the main bosses’ federation), are talking openly of imposing structural changes to the index-mechanism, which adapts workers’ wages to the rising cost of living. When it comes to the Flemish nationalist party the NVA, in the opposition, it wants only to prove at all costs to the bosses that it would take on the austerity even more brutally than the present coalition.

For a sustained and democratically organised plan of action

Before even being installed, the Di Rupo government received a first and powerful illustration of workers’ discontent. On December 2, 80,000 workers rallied in Brussels to demonstrate against austerity. According to the unions, this was one of the largest union demonstrations Belgium has experienced in recent years.

Five days later, 40,000 people, mainly trade unionists, took to the streets in Liège to protest against the announced permanent closure of liquid-phase steel production at the site of ArcelorMittal – the world’s largest steelmaker- in the region, raising the demand for a regional general strike. This was part of international coordinated strike action by metal workers, as the protest was taking place at the same time as work stoppages, walk outs and rallies at other European ArcelorMittal plants in France, Luxembourg, Italy, Germany, Spain, Romania, and others.

In Liège, not only steelworkers were present in the demo, but many workers from other sectors came in solidarity. Most shops in the city centre were closed on that day for the same reason. This was the biggest class showdown in this city for decades. Significantly, the issue of the nationalization of the plant and of the entire industry was very present in discussions, as well as on the banners of the union delegations.

The PSL-LSP (CWI in Belgium) supports the nationalisation of the steel industry, but we argue for it to be under the democratic control and management of the working class, and without compensation for the owners. To put this into practice, and build a suitable relationship of forces on the ground to impose such a solution, the occupation of the factory would be an important step forward. This would be a striking manifestation of the power of the organised working class, while providing a space for collective discussion to decide, in democratic general assemblies, the next steps to take the movement forward.

22 December was a new expression of the potential to build a sustained fight back against the social massacre that this new government is planning against the working class. The Di Rupo government has actually already broken a record: it is the Belgian government facing, within the shortest period of time, a public sector general strike. Three days before Christmas, public transport, schools, hospitals, postal deliveries, governmental buildings, and other services were paralysed by a solid 24 hour national strike against the government’s pensions plan. This success took place despite the evident lack of a serious preparatory plan (the strike was called three days before) and during a critical period of the year.

After the public sector strike, a general strike of the public and private sectors is already on the agenda for 30 January! But workers need a serious plan of action to defeat austerity in its tracks. 30 January is a very important step forward, but should not remain a one-shot operation. Nico Cué, from the metalworkers’ “socialist” trade union of Wallonia-Brussels, raised the possibility of an action plan with a 24-hour general strike in January, a 48 hour-general strike in April, and a 72-hour general strike in June. This is a good proposal, encouraging the struggle to escalate as long as the government does not step back in its attacks. But such an escalating agenda of generalised strike action, if good in the principle, might have to be reviewed in its timetable, and above all, needs to be developed democratically by involving the base of the working class, with a sustained campaign to mobilize and inform in every factory and workplace. This would make sure that the discontent present in society could be transformed into a powerful force of resistance.

For a new working class party

Rather than saving the banks at the expense of the public, the PSL/LSP advocates to place the banks and the key sectors of the economy in the hands of the working class and of the broader community. In this way, the resources and wealth we produce would be directed towards the real needs of society. This is what we call a democratic socialist society: the exact contrary of what the supposed “socialist” parties (the PS and the SP.a) are now implementing, inflicting brutal cuts on the shoulders of the poor, to save the profits of the banks and the big companies.

The trade unions must break now the links with these parties of austerity. Anyone knows that it does not lead to an easy victory to go fighting with one hand tied in the back. Union struggles and demands need to have their own independent political expression. The PS and SP.a are the opposite of this. Hence, the unions need to break their links with their present political “partners” and contribute to the building of a genuine workers’ party.

Such a party of workers must be “pluralistic” and open to anyone who wants to fight against the austerity policies. In Flanders, ‘Rood!’, the movement led by Erik de Bruyn (a former presidential candidate of the SP.a, who has now left this party) is an attempt in this direction. In Brussels and Wallonia, the potential for a left pole also exists, and similar initiatives have been attempted, such as the ‘Left Front’.

Of course, as long as a significant part of trade union activists are not involved in this process, such initiatives will remain limited. But in a situation where the so-called “socialists” are at the head of implementing austerity programmes in the new coalition government, and are leading a frontal offensive against the working class, more and more will look for a political alternative to the establishment parties. That is why it is more urgent than ever to address this issue, in the workers struggles that will grow in the coming months.

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January 2012