Kristof Van Accom / AFP / Getty Images

Belgian unions ground flights, halt trains in national strike

Millions of people missed work and school as public services were shuttered in fight over spending bill

Belgian unions grounded all flights, halted all trains and closed hundreds of factories and offices in a nationwide strike Monday, protesting the government's planned pension reforms and budget cuts as part of a larger battle over how to restore growth and decrease national debt levels that stand at around 100 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

In the country's first general strike since 2005, Brussels Airport canceled about 600 flights as a stoppage by air traffic controllers meant no planes could take off or land in Belgium.

Eurostar, which operates high-speed rail services between Brussels and London, terminated all Brussels-bound trains in Lille, France. Most trains on the high-speed Thalys link to Germany, France and the Netherlands were also canceled.

Local bus, tram and metro services were also hit.

Belgian highways were clear, and national automobile association Touring said many people had clearly gotten the message to work at home or take a day off.

At Antwerp, among Europe's busiest ports, more than 50 vessels were unable to enter or leave. In the western city of Ghent, unions blocked a major road by a plant of steelmaker Arcelor Mittal.

In Brussels, police held back striking workers who sought to throw eggs and fireworks at the offices of Flemish separatist party N-VA, one of the four parties in the Belgian government.

Unions called the strike a great success, but Flemish business group Voka said 77 percent of the firms it surveyed in Brussels and the northern region of Flanders had all their workers in.

A hostage siege in Ghent also knocked the strike off the front pages of most local media websites.

The signals from Belgian high streets were mixed. Striking workers shut two of Ikea's six Belgian stores, while in many commercial districts of Brussels about half the stores were open.

The center-right government of Prime Minister Charles Michel, which took office in mid-October, plans to raise the retirement age and skip a scheduled inflation-linked wage increase that was due in 2015.

Belgium needs to keep its public sector deficit below 3 percent of annual national output this year and next. It is already at risk of EU disciplinary proceedings over a public debt load of about 100 percent of GDP.

Unions have staged a series of one-day regional strikes in the past few weeks, culminating in Monday's national action. It was not immediately clear whether they planned further action.


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