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Belgium braces for national strike chaos

Belgium risks coming to a virtual standstill Monday as the biggest national strike for years grounds all flights, halts public transport and severs international train links in protest at the new government’s austerity policies.

The strike, which is the climax of a union movement that began last month with a huge march and violent protests in Brussels, will also likely close schools, businesses, factories and government offices.

Unions say there is “no choice” but to go ahead with the strike after the right-of-centre government of Prime Minister Charles Michel pushed ahead with plans to save 11 billion euros ($13.7 billion) over five years.

French-speaking Michel, who at 38 is Belgium’s youngest prime minister since 1840, heads a government coalition of three Flemish-speaking right-leaning parties and his own French-speaking liberals.

The formation of the government in October, five months after elections, was meant to bring some calm to a nation deeply divided between the richer Flanders and the poorer French-speaking Wallonia.

But Belgian unions oppose a decision by Michel’s coalition government to scrap plans for a usually automatic cost-of-living raise next year. They also reject public sector cutbacks and plans to raise the retirement age from 65 to 67 from 2030.

The strike will affect not only Brussels but also French-speaking towns like Liege and Tournai as well as Flemish-speaking cities like the tourist hotspot of Bruges and the ports of Antwerp and Ostend.

The main unions — the Christian CSC, Socialist FGTB and the liberal GGSLB — all speak of a “common front”.

– ‘Paralyse the country’ –

Last month, a peaceful 100,000-person march in Brussels ended in violent clashes that left 112 police officers injured.

Recent strikes and protests echo others held in EU countries like Spain, Greece and Italy to oppose government austerity policies.

The last national strike in Belgium was in 2012 against the government of socialist prime minister Elio di Rupo.

Flights to and from Belgium will be grounded from late Sunday as air traffic controllers join the nationwide strike.

No planes are due to land at or take off from airports in Brussels, Charleroi, Liege, Antwerp and Ostend for 24 hours from 2100 GMT Sunday.

Eurostar rail services from Brussels to the British capital London and trains to the French capital Paris, Amsterdam in the Netherlands and German city of Cologne are also likely to be halted.

Domestic underground train services, buses and tram services throughout the country are also likely to be affected.

Traffic on the country’s highways is set to be snarled as lorry drivers unfurled banners in recent days reading: “Lorry drivers, paralyse the country on December 15.”

Picket lines organised by the three unions may form outside state-run firms, schools, government offices and industrial zones. The strike is also likely to affect post offices and rubbish collections, prisons and the courts.

The magistrates’ union on Friday expressed “its total solidarity” with the strikers. Public radio will likely reduce programming to music except for the occasional news bulletin.

The unions may decide to take further action in the New Year.