Europe is ailing. In no other place is this more clear than in Brussels, the heart of Europe, where Belgians are reluctant to accept the neoliberal austerity measures of their new government. Rich city, poor citizens
Brussels is the second richest region in Europe. It has been in the top three for decades now. However, right now 34% of its population is living in poverty. The unemployment figure is around 20%, 30% for youth and even up to 50% in some areas. This is exacerbated by the fact that Brussels has the most imbalanced labour market in Europe. There are jobs for those with university degrees, but a great majority of Brussels natives do not hold such degrees. In fact, at least a quarter of Brussels youth leaves secondary education without a degree. There are a staggering 112 candidates per vacancy for low-skill positions, while our politicians tell us that there are plenty of jobs but people are lazy.
Another alarming figure is the fact that at this very moment thousands of children in Brussels are not receiving an education, because there is a shortage of schools and teachers. This is a violation of a basic international and constitutional rights, yet Belgian politics is blind to it. Perhaps simply because the huge majority of these kids are of migrant background.
For immigrants, Belgium is the worst country in Europe in terms of equal opportunities. According recent research from Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) no other country has less immigrants active on the labour market. There are two reasons for this OSCE says: racism and discrimination on the one hand, and inequality within education system on the other. According to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Belgium has the highest inequality in education system in the Western world. The victims of this system are migrant youth and those coming from lower classes.
Although these are dramatic figures, it is necessary to look beyond the numbers and realize that these are human beings who are in a terrible situation and have an even worse future ahead of them.
Protests against austerity
Since two months Belgium has a right government which has taken enormous austerity measures. Billions of euros of cutbacks on health system, education, assistance for the unemployed. A serious attack on the welfare state. The government has asked people to work harder and longer while there are no jobs.
We have seen similar policies all over Europe and by now we know they have one thing in common: they all have failed, from Greece to the UK. In the example of Greece, the country that faced the harshest austerity measures in Europe, according figures of the Greek government, the austerity measures left the average Greek 40% poorer. At the same time the top rich got 20% richer. Yes, austerity works, but only for the rich.
Belgian politicians are defending the austerity measures stating that ‘there is no alternative’. However unions and civil organizations have come with viable alternatives. First, instead of austerity they ask for investments. David Stuckler (Oxford University) and Sanjay Basu (Stanford University) have shown that an investment of 1 dollar in health service has an economic return of 3 dollars. Same figures, but in euros, are presented on investments in culture in Belgium. Secondly, Belgium is internationally known as a fiscal paradise. Multinationals are paying few or no taxes while making billions of euros of profit. Unions and left political parties are asking for a tax on capital, which does not exist in Belgium. The revenues of this tax would be around 8 billion euro’s. A survey this week showed that 85% of Belgians support a tax on capital.
Given these circumstances, Belgians are not ready to accept the austerity measures. Last month has been a month of protests. On 6 November more than 120.000 took to the streets in Brussels. One of the biggest protests in decades. On 15 December the unions have called for a general strike. This is the first general strike since 1993. It is expected to be one of the biggest general strikes in Belgian history. The unions are supported by a growing group of civil society organisations which are opposing the austerity measures through grassroots democratic actions. Moreover students and even pupils from schools have joined the protests last month and will strike again on the 15th of December
The wide protests, the first general strike in 21 years, the public support for tax on capital and the solidarity among unions, civil society, students and citizens show that Belgium is refusing to follow the failed example of austerity and is setting an example of resistance for the rest of Europe.