Military airfield awaits EU leaders as Belgians strike

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Belgian authorities are prepared to use a military airfield to receive EU leaders for the extraordinary summit on growth and jobs, as trade unions threatened a mass strike on Monday that is likely to block the Brussels airport.

Many public- and private-sector workers in Belgium are threatening a 24-hour strike designed to shut the country's transportation network and close the main airports on the day of the EU summit, Belgian news media reported.

Belgians are striking because their government has made it harder for them to retire early and has cut back on unemployment benefits, as part of an austerity budget aimed at bringing its deficit within the EU limit of 3% this year.

As part of the strike, planes will also likely to be grounded at Belgium's main airport, Brussels Airport, after pilots agreed to take part in the stoppages, trade unions said.

According to the Belga agency, Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo has asked the defence ministry to prepare a contingency plan for using the military airport of Beauvechain, 30 kilometers east of the capital.

The solution appears to have difficulties. The Beauvechain base, which for decades housed fighter planes and is now used for training jets and helicopters, reportedly does not have appropriate equipment or sufficient parking space to accommodate larger aircraft. Also, the airport has no sufficient firefighting equipment and personnel for hosting a large number of aircraft.

A better option would be to use the low-cost airport near Charleroi, at some 60 km from Brussels. However, Charleroi airport will be closed, a spokesman said, after Belgian unions said they would block the road to the terminal.

"There is only one access route to the airport," said Daniel Piron, general sectary of the Charleroi division of FGTB, a trade union. "This access route will be blocked," he added, quoted by Reuters.

Belgium trade union representatives voiced their disgust at the announcement of measures to use Beauchevain to circumvent the strike.

"It appears as the right to strike does not apply in this country," an activist was quoted as saying.

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