Brussels burns as more than 100,000 protesters clash with police during march against EU austerity measures
- Fighting broke out after the end of largely peaceful trade union march
- New right-wing government was elected in Belgium last month
- It wants to raise retirement age, cancel wage rises and cut welfare benefits
Violence broke out on the streets of Brussels today as more than 100,000 people marched against EU-enforced austerity.
Water cannons and tear gas were used in the centre of the Belgian capital as riot police tried to bring the situation under control.
Fighting broke out soon after the end of a largely peaceful march organised by trade unions and left wing politicians.
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For two hours, the demonstrators had peacefully marched down the main thoroughfares of central Brussels to protest government policies that will raise the pension age, contain wages and cut into public services.
But violence broke out at the end of the demonstration as police fired tear gas and water cannon in an effort to clear the streets. No casualties were immediately reported.
'Metal barriers were thrown at the police, together with stones, and then the situation rapidly got worse,' said demonstrator Gilles Broussard.
'Hundreds of riot police were involved in trying to bring the situation under control - it all got very nasty.'
A new government was elected in Belgium last month and immediately pledged to raise the retirement age, cancel wage rises and cut social security benefits. This was all in line with strict guidelines from Europe, which views austerity as the key to the trading bloc's future.
Belgium has a long postwar tradition of collective bargaining between employers and workers, and successive coalition governments representing a full scale of public opinion often have been able to contain social disagreements.
But the current coalition, made up of three pro-business parties and the centrist Christian Democrats, is the first in decades that has been able to set such a clear neoliberal free-market agenda.
Marchers said the government, which hopes to save the equivalent of more than £10million, was attacking ordinary people, while avoiding higher taxes for businesses.
'They are hitting the workers, the unemployed. They are not looking for money where it is, I mean, people with a lot of money,' said Philippe Dubois, who came from the industrial rust belt of Liege.
The government says it has been forced to push through stringent austerity measures to keep the budget deficit within European Union constraints and insists that businesses need more lenient tax policies to become more competitive in the global market.
The trade unions object to government policies that promise to raise the pension age from 65 to 67, freeze the automatic link between wages and inflation, and cut public services in a way that would affect the entire population.
The ACV-CSC Christian trade union coalition boss Marc Leemans told Reuters: 'The signal is clear. People are angry, livid. This government's policies are totally unbalanced.'
ACV estimated that some 120,000 people had taken to the streets, with the police looking at a figure of more like 100,000.
Slogans on banners included: 'Eliminate the causes of the crisis, not the poor', 'Hands off the pension age', and 'human need not corporate greed'.
By late afternoon cars and other vehicles could be seen burning in the centre of Brussels. There were also reports of buildings being set on fire, and other property being damaged. 'There are disturbances in the centre of the centre,' said a Brussels police spokesman.
The unexpectedly massive march opens a month-long campaign by the trade unions against the business-friendly governing coalition and is to be capped with a nationwide general strike on December 15.
Despite the opening of government-led talks with employers and unions later Thursday, Socialist trade union leader Rudy De Leeuw vowed to continue the protests for weeks on end.
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