Pitched battles flare at Brussels austerity protest

Brussels riot
Brussels protestors 4 April. Credit: Arthur Neslen

The noise of firecrackers and water cannons echoed around Schuman roundabout, the home of the European Commission today (4 April), as a workers’ protest against austerity turned violent, injuring 27 people, eight of them seriously.

March organisers say that 50,000 people came to Brussels from 21 countries across Europe to demonstrate for a massive job investment programme and against austerity policies. Police sources put the figure at 25,000.

“That people came from as far away as Portugal, Bulgaria and Cyprus should send a sobering message to EU leaders,” said Bernadette Ségol, the secretary-general of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). “People have had enough of austerity. They want a concerted effort to tackle unemployment, poverty and inequality.”   

But as the march passed the US embassy, their message was drowned out by anger. Rocks and deafening firecrackers were thrown by some protesters, triggering a lockdown inside the US compound until water cannons were brought out to disperse protestors towards Rue Belliard.

There, impromptu barricades were set up in the street. Further up towards the European parliament, metal hoardings were torn up and thrown at workers on the site below who refused to join the demonstration.  

Finally, at the demonstration’s terminus in Schuman, hundreds of marchers adorned in the orange bibs of the BTB-ABVV docker’s union from Antwerp ripped up paving stones to throw at riot police, who responded with blasts from two water cannons.

The Belgian trade union leader Anne Demelenne told EurActiv that the workers actions had done “a disservice” to their cause. “I can understand the anger [and] despair because of the lack of jobs, because of the dark perspectives that Europe offers, but we are here to ask for a turn to the left, and we will not be able to convey our message as we should this way,” she said.

But the dock workers rejected responsibility for the violence. “It was not us,” one told EurActiv at the scene of the fighting. “It’s the police that started shooting with water cannons at us.”

The Belgian dockers’ main grievance is a 40-year-old “Law Major” that grants social advantages, and protects them from social dumping. The country’s Flemish-speaking Liberals want to reform it, arguing that it harms the port’s competitiveness.

On 25 March, the European Commission sent a formal notice to Belgium asking for changes to the law – which protects 8000 workers - to be made within two months.

“Brussels is going to burn”

“We are not violent, but if the law is scrapped in two months, there will be a war in Brussels,” one port worker told EurActiv, as his colleagues who nodded in approval.

“Yes, Brussels is going to burn if they touch this law,” another added in Flemish. “Everything has become too expensive. We are not against Europe, but against a Europe where our salaries are cut down and we can’t find a job.”

The labour protest was unusually diverse and youthful, peppered with sound systems playing reggae and rock throughout.  One masked docker from Antwerp who identified himself only as ‘Ice man’ told EurActiv that the workers were fighting because the police had locked them in.

“This new Europe that the European Commission [is creating] is not for the people who work in the port of Antwerp,” he said. “We have to protect our jobs and incomes.”

Fighting with the police was not “the right way” forward, he added, “but they have locked us in here.”


The labour protest had been conceived as a spark for radical change at the EU elections – and at a Belgian national poll – next month, putting sustainable reindustrialisation, growth and jobs back onto the political agenda.

EU unemployment in February was running at 10.6% and 22.9% for those under 25-years-old. In Greece and Spain, the jobless rate is more than a quarter, and unemployment is above 50%.  

The ETUI (European Trade Union Institute) released a study last month which argued that Europe was “half-way through a lost decade”.

The union body says that real wages, adjusted for inflation, have fallen in 18 out of 28 EU member states since 2009 – by 23% in Greece, 12% in Hungary, over 6% in Spain and Portugal and over 4% in the Netherlands and the UK.   

According to the ETUC, 11 million jobs could be created over ten years with a €250 billion investment, a quarter of what was spent on saving Europe’s banks, and a quarter of what is lost annually through  tax evasion and fraud.

“Another Europe”

“We denounce the budgetary austerity that created 10 million more unemployed people in Europe workers since 2008. It shows how much we were right these last years to denounce these right-wing policies. We are here to put our alternatives forward and the necessity to invest more in the real economy, to make it possible to create more jobs through a more just tax policy and fight against the social dumping with minimal salaries in each EU member state. That is our message,” Anne Demelenne told EurActiv.

The ETUC secretary general, Bernadette Ségol added: “Stop austerity is our message for the next elections, stop unemployment, invest for quality jobs, we should have a big European investment plan to give perspective to people that Europe is there for them.

Benchmarking Working Europe 2014” came to the same conclusions earlier in March: austerity is not working – income inequality and the rate of people at risk of poverty have risen.

The report suggests that alternatives need to be found through investment and reform of the fiscal rules. “Recovery requires current spending from governments (…) There is also little point in trying to modernise societies, for example with new facilities for education, research and health, if there are no resources to pay the employees. Therefore, at least until growth is restored, the rules on fiscal deficits and debt level need to be interpreted luch more flexibly. More radical measures would include steps towards mutualisation of public debt (…)” ETUI wrote.

Trade unions want to see a “reindustrialisation” of Europe in the words of the ETUC secretary general: "We want to re-industrialise Europe for sustainable growth, on environment, on transport, energy, housing, on health,” Ségol called.

The study also focuses strongly on “green investments”: “this additional investment would help to give a kick to the anemic European economy and set it on a sustainable growth trajectory,” the report found stressing the beneficial effects such investments would have on employment, especially for the construction industry sector, which suffered strongly from the crisis, and could benefit “from a dynamic investment programme in energy saving” the study found.

EU elections

Members of trade unions called for a radical change at the next EU elections in May 2014, which in many countries coincide with some kind of national elections – as in Belgium where a crucial parliamentary election will also take place.

But although no specific partisan instruction was given, the speakers’ messages during the demonstrations were clear: “we do not want more right-wing policies”, was the motto of the day.

  • May 2014: EU Parliamentary elections and Belgian national poll due to take place
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an european's picture

It's clear !
6 years in recession with intergovernalism and austeriy !
How is that the U.S. have an unemployement of 7% only ?
Have we to call Ben Bernanke ?

Every member of it's family has it's own car to drive to the same destination to waste gasoline for every car instead drivin in one Van only and saving gasoline !

Sky Wanderer's picture

"How is that the U.S. have an unemployement of 7% only ?"
The above figure is false. What we experience in the EU is a GLOBAL: in every sense. Debt, Crisis and Austerity is what the global ruling class (banks, corporations and their bribed politicians) WANT, hence keep in place artificially (see my other comment). The crisis in Europe is a variant of the same that strikes the entire 1st world, including US and Japan, let alone the lesser developed regions.

What we don't read in the news: In the US many millions (ca 20% of the population) are out of work, while 20% of all resources are idle, once prosperous industrial centers like Detroit, are abandoned, corporations outsource labor to 3rd world sweatshops for next-to-zero wages, hence domestic unemployment in the US is soaring and wages are decreasing. All students are deep in debt (burdened by massive student loans while finding no jobs), half of the Americans are without pension - the US Government is reducing and planning to eliminate the pension of all those who worked for public companies - and those still with prospect for pension will lose out on the volatile stock market, due to lack of public pension-system.

Iwantout's picture

An European, as you say unemployment in the US is 6.7%. In a few EU states it is at roughly the same level, e.g. Denmark, Germany, UK and Sweden. The average across the EZ is 11.9%.

I would suggest that given the fact that the largest economy and most powerful state in the EZ, Germany, is obviously not suffering (current unemployment at 5.1% and no higher than 5.5% at any time in the last two years), perhaps they simply do not feel that they have any interest in changing a policy that is working very well indeed for them. Perhaps France, Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Ireland, Italy, Slovenia, Poland, Slovakia, Portugal, Cyprus, Croatia, Spain or Greece, all of which have unemployment rates of at least twice the level of Germany have a different view, especially given the sustained nature of their recessions.

Given as you say that the austerity policy has been in place for 6 years (and the German economy is increasingly successful and powerful) why on earth would they want a change of direction? The fact that many countries have had unemployment (and particularly youth unemployment) at horrendous levels and experienced severe difficulties for several years have not caused a change of course so far.

When politicians sign up for the single currency they agree to give up control over their own economy. They know this even if the people they represent do not. Given that every country in the EU except Denmark and the UK are legally obliged to join the euro (even Sweden despite the stated wish of the voters) this is not a problem that is going to go away. You simply find yourself in the position where the biggest and strongest person in the room is telling you what to do and you have to do it.

‘More Europe’ does not change the dynamic and I wonder exactly how anyone sees Germany being forced to change its position given that they have been pretty constant for a very long time and they are paying a very large share of the bills.

Alternatives other than more of the same policy? Break up the euro and allow individual states to make appropriate devaluations; the political damage to the dream of ‘ever closer union’ are obvious. Or have the Germans agree to massive fiscal transfers to other euro states; this option of course assumes that a German government can be persuaded to commit political suicide, the German tax payers will cough up and that they can actually afford payments on the necessary scale anyway. Good luck either way.

Sky Wanderer's picture

The ultimate reason for Austerity is the very monetary system imposed on our societies by the ruling classes.

Almost no one is aware of the shocking fact that within the Western economies (in the US, UK and EU) commercial private banks create NEW money - please underline this twice - every time when they extend loans to individuals or governments. As for the UK system, a recent Bank of England bulletin revealed:
"Of the two types of broad money, bank deposits make up the vast majority — 97% of the amount currently in circulation. And in the modern economy, those bank deposits are mostly created by commercial banks themselves." (p.15)
"Most of the money in circulation is created, not by the printing presses of the Bank of England, but by the commercial banks themselves: banks create money whenever they lend to someone in the economy or buy an asset from consumers." (p.25) (Money creation in the modern economy)

Please underline this many times: COMMERCIAL BANKS, privately owned companies, issue empty digits on bank servers when they extend loans. Privately owned banks enter several digits on bank servers and NEW money enters the system. In fact this kind of debt-tied money constitutes the vast majority (ca 90%) of all money within the system. "Cash makes up less than 9% of the eurozone money supply" (see : "How money is created and destroyed: A guide to the Eurozone monetary system" - Sensiblemoney.ie)

One of the mind-blowing implications of above: that Austerity has no economic-financial reason whatsoever. Contrary to the widespread myths, banks carry no risks as to their own solvency because in their deposits they do not rely on any pre-existing money base. Whenever banks finance any activity all they need to do IS TO ENTER A NUMBER AND A EURO/POUND/DOLLAR SIGN along with the number, and the money is there to spend. There are virtually unlimited funds available for whatever the ruling class PREFERS to finance, meanwhile they demand austerity against the masses to deepen the crisis, to deepen our public and individual debts, increase our financial dependence and increase their own wealth and power.


Sky Wanderer's picture

"The ETUC released a study last month titled Benchmarking Working Europe 2014, which argued that Europe was “half-way through a lost decade”.

The above is definitely incorrect, stated either by sheer ignorance or intentional deceit.

What we are experiencing in the EU is a GLOBAL process and marks not only a lost decade, but a lost century and a lost mankind if we do not restore national independence, if we do not redemocraticise our countries, and do not break up the global imperial units as the EU.

As long as the current Debt-based monetary system is in place, which issues 97% of the money as Debt, the repayment of Debts will require more Debts, and more Debts will entail more Austerity. And as we know from the Greek example, the EU is one of the most brutal enforcer of Austerity - with the exception of Germany, where the population enjoys a highly developed welfare system, including a socialised healthcare system, yet with top quality. The fairy tale about the necessity of Austerity has been debunked on many levels and from all angles, and is proven blatantly false by examples of Switzerland or Germany itself, yet it is imposed on the whole of Europe and whole of the West. We can't emphasize enough: there is no such thing as limits to any funds - depends on how many digits and for what purpose the banks enter the system.

The EU, and all free trade areas are the opposite of freedom: they are nothing but milestones in establishing a global financial-economic and military control, while ensuring that the rich enjoy the funds the banks create from thin air. The global ruling class maintains Debt, Crisis, and Austerity via the private monetary system they control via banks, corporations and bribed politicians.

Since this system is artificially kept in place, it will remain in place and by which the whole Western world will be gradually pulled down into 3rd world level poverty. Since the ruling class have unlimited funds at their hands (also see my first comment) the establishment can navigate this system as long as they wish - the global destruction they carry out is gradual, nevertheless lethal, and eventually will reach even the still economically viable segments.

Hence, for a real Recovery the bottom-line is to cancel all odious public and individual Debts induced by the current monetary system, to put all money-supply under democratic control, to reclaim all public resources, companies and other assets the banks and corporations seized by their private money-creation and by the collaborating corrupt politicians, to restore the former national borders, to reintroduce real democratic constitutions and institutions, and start governing ourselves, free our countries from the global financial tyranny, as in Iceland did.

In lack of such fundamental change, any promise of economic Recovery remains a false promise and a blatant LIE, with the only purpose to make sure the masses remain passive in this lethal trend.