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EU leaders scramble to summit amid Belgian strike

Belgium was at a standstill Monday, as transport workers and other public officials went on an anti-austerity strike that nevertheless failed to cause major disruption to 2012’s first EU summit.

It was the first such general strike in Belgium since 2005 and the first since 1993 launched jointly by the country’s three main unions, which are angry over public spending cuts of more than 12 billion euros ($15 billion) for 2012.

Domestically, rail services stopped completely from late Sunday and no public transport was running in Brussels or across other major cities.

High-speed international services on Eurostar and Thalys trains were also halted and all flights in and out of Belgium’s low-cost hub at Charleroi were cancelled as demonstrators blocked access roads.

At the main Brussels airport, around one in 10 flights was not running and there were some delays, not helped by freezing temperatures and a light snowfall, said spokesman Jan van der Cruysse.

“Our other problem at the moment is that our cargo airport has been completely blocked. There is no access for trucks… this is a major problem. No one can say at the moment how long this might take,” he told AFP.

Activists also succeeded in blocking several trunk roads across the country.

However, the industrial action failed to stop the 27 leaders from across the EU making it to Brussels for their first summit of 2012, after the Belgian government made available a military airport outside the capital.

Opening the meeting, EU president Herman Van Rompuy, himself Belgian, said: “I am glad you all made it to the meeting room today even if it was not easy. I thank the Belgian government for its help.”

Hailed by unions as a “clear success”, the strike also disrupted port services at Antwerp, one of the biggest in Europe, as well as the private sector, with employees walking off the job at Coca-Cola’s factory nearby.

Postal workers were also on strike and many schools were affected.

The FGTB union, one of the three groups organising the strike, staged a rally only a few hundred metres (yards) from the venue of the summit “to deliver a message to Europe”.

A handful of activists braved the cold and snow to make their feelings clear, with banners reading: “Competitiveness Pact: No, Austerity Pact: No, Solidarity Pact: Yes.”

“Austerity is simply the wrong answer,” said Claude Rolin, general secretary of the CSC union. “There is an increasing rupture between the people and the political classes and that could be dangerous for democracy.”

He said he expected “nothing good” to come from the summit, dismissing the fiscal pact for tougher budgetary rules set to be agreed by leaders as “absurd”.

Another union boss, Anne Demmelene of the FGTB, said Monday’s strike may not be the last.

“If they don’t listen to us, we will continue to take action… this austerity will lead us to recession,” she told reporters at the demonstration.

Announcing the strike last week, union leaders said it was “inevitable” after tense negotiations with Socialist Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo’s government.

They said the strike was “patently required to convince the government and employers to take fully into account the social reality for workers and those on benefits.”

The unions said negotiations with the government on further likely spending cuts demanded by EU partners to stay within set deficit targets had proved “inconclusive”.