In Europe - West, May, 24, 2016

Belgian riot police deployed water cannons to disperse a major anti-austerity demonstration on May 24 attended by tens of thousands of people in central Brussels. At least two policemen and several protesters have been injured.

Mass rally in Brussels on May 24, 2016 to block laws attacking pensions, work hours and other labour rights (Eric Vidal, Reuters)

Mass rally in Brussels on May 24, 2016 to block laws attacking pensions, work hours and other labour rights (Eric Vidal, Reuters)

Brussels’ main commissioner Pierre Vandersmissen was among the injured along with another policeman, local media reports citing Brussels police department.

The demonstration was called by the workers’ and trade unions under the slogan “enough is enough” to protest against what they dub “antisocial” government policies, which cut into the foundations of the country’s welfare system. Unions denounce budget cuts in public services and education, lack of jobs and the absence of social dialogue.

They oppose the so-called ‘Peeters law’ which provides for the annualization of working time, making its distribution more flexible, and cutting overtime. Annualization means that the maximum number of hours an employee should work per week is calculated on an average yearly basis.

This may allow greater flexibility for employers, giving them an opportunity to better regulate resources and workload. But people fear the concept could also give employers power to demand extra working hours when they want to without paying for overtime.

“We have had more than enough of the constant attacks of the government and employers on workers’ money and their rights,” the protesters’ manifesto states.

Lode Vanoost, a former deputy speaker of the Belgian parliament, further explained to RT the controversies in the proposed labor legislation.

“[Under] the new law the government has proposed to abolish the 38-hour working week, which is an accomplishment of the social struggle not just of Belgium, but of the whole of Europe. They want to abolish it and make it [the employer’s right to decide] how many hours a person is supposed to work every week,” Vanoost says, calling the new law “a symbolic thing which attacks the social rights of people in general.”

He goes on to say that under the new law people will have to work longer hours for less pay, and will be “without the assurance of a decent working contract, [as] one of the things the government wants to do is abolish the permanent working contract, so they [the workers] don’t have any certainty about their future.”

Trade unions say that free market policies of current Prime Minister Charles Michel over the past two years have cost an average Belgian family some €100 ($112) a month, while his promise of extra jobs has not been fulfilled. They also call for the government to tackle tax evasion of businesses.

Business owners, however, say that the event is groundless. Pieter Timmermans, the managing director of the Federation of Belgian companies (FEB) says that according to FEB estimations “growth continues and the forecasts for investment and employment are improving despite all the events that occurred in the past six months, including the attacks of March 22.” Nine of 10 sectors surveyed by the employers’ federation believe that the country’s economic activity remained stable (47 percent) or increased (41 percent) during the past half year.

In late April, the unions addressed a letter to Kris Peeters and Prime Minister Charles Michel, demanding to be heard. “You should pay more attention to social dialogue,” they wrote. “We do not want to be drawn into a semblance of consensus under which, when an agreement is reached between social partners, it is not respected by the government, which at the end of the day makes decisions alone.”

Read also:

Over 60,000 union workers protest labor reform plans in Brussels, Reuters, May 24, 2016

Mass protests in France against government attacks on labour rights, Reuters, May 19, 2016

Austria elects Green candidate as president in narrow defeat for far right

By Kate Connolly and Philip Oltermann in Vienna, Jon Henley in London, The Guardian, May 23, 2016

A leftwing, independent candidate has narrowly prevented Austria from becoming the first EU country to elect a far-right head of state after a knife-edge contest ended with his opponent conceding defeat. Alexander Van der Bellen, a retired economics professor backed by the Green party, defeated Norbert Hofer, of the anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic Freedom party, a day after polling closed and only once more than 700,000 postal ballots – about 10% of available votes – were taken into account.

The Austrian presidency is a largely ceremonial role but the outcome became hugely symbolic. Mirroring the rise of populist parties across Europe, the Freedom party exploited anti-EU and anti-immigrant sentiment in the wake of the continent’s refugee crisis, and despite Hofer’s narrow defeat, the election has left a deep split over the direction Austria should now take.

The Austrian interior ministry confirmed that after postal votes were counted, Hofer’s final score was 49.7%, against 50.3% for Van der Bellen, the son of two refugees. In a post on Facebook, Hofer wrote: “Dear friends, I thank you for your fantastic support. Of course today I am sad. I would have liked to have watched out for you as president of our wonderful country.”

Van der Bellen, a former leader of the Green party who announced after the result that he would put his party membership on hold during his presidency, is the EU’s second head of state with a Green party background after Latvia last year elected Green politician Raimonds Vējonis as president.

In a speech in the gardens of Vienna’s Palais Schönburg, Van der Bellen said the tight results put “even greater responsibility on me, but also on Mr Hofer”. The outcome showed the country was made up of two halves that were equally important. He added: “Together we make up this beautiful Austria.”

While the elections had revealed a great rift running through Austrian society, the 72-year-old said, “this rift has existed for some time, though perhaps we didn’t look at it that closely in the past”. The fact that people had debated the presidency so intensely was a positive sign that “people are not left cold by politics – they want to actively shape it”.

Hofer and Van der Bellen were separated by just 31,000 votes out of more than 4.6m ballots cast. Before postal votes were counted, they were neck and neck, with Van der Bellen on 48.1% of direct votes and Hofer on 51.9%. Many Austrian websites were down under the weight of traffic as the country waited with bated breath for news of the final result of Sunday’s vote.

Hofer urged his supporters not to be discouraged but to see the campaign as “an investment in the future”. Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the Freedom party,wrote on his Facebook page: “This is just the beginning. The start of a new era in our democracy, towards more direct democracy and binding referenda.”

The chancellor, Christian Kern – a Social Democrat who had endorsed Van der Bellen – said the challenge for the new president was to ensure that no voter was left feeling like they had ended up on the losing side. “We have understood the protest and will orient our political course accordingly,” said Kern, whose own SPÖ suffered dismal losses in the election’s first round.

Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, said: “While we are certainly satisfied with the result, there is little room to celebrate the high level of support for someone with such extremist views.”

In a reflection of voters’ dissatisfaction with mainstream politics, the candidates of both the centre-left Social Democrats and conservative People’s party, which have dominated Austria’s politics since the second world war, were eliminated in the first round of voting in late April. Werner Faymann, the social democratic chancellor, then resigned earlier this month.

After coming second in the first round in the presidential elections in April, Van der Bellen had not only managed to hold on to his voters but mobilised non-voters and gained the support of those who had previously backed the candidates of the centre-left SPÖ and centre-right ÖVP.

For the election, Viennese coffee houses reportedly set aside separate areas for supporters of the rival candidates over fears of clashes.

Van der Bellen’s father was born in Russia to a family descended from Dutch immigrants and his mother was born in Estonia, from where the family fled when the former Soviet Union invaded in 1940. They eventually settled inAustria.

A Vienna city councillor since leaving parliament in 2012, the staunchly pro-European Van der Bellen led the Austrian Greens from 1997 to 2008.

In contrast, Hofer, whose cultivated, smooth-talking image has led to him being hailed “the friendly face” of the Freedom party, has said “Islam has no place in Austria” and warned that if he was elected he would not hesitate to dissolve the government if it did not act against immigration.

Florian Klenk, a leading Austrian commentator and editor of the weekly magazine Falter, said he could understand why the international media in particular had focused on Hofer’s stellar rise on an anti-immigrant ticket. “He has a sect-like following and a way of communicating that is quite disturbing. Then there’s his desire to win back South Tyrol, his Islamophobia,” he said.

“But I’m interested to know, will there be as much focus and astonishment now that Van der Bellen, a candidate who is in favour of keeping Austria’s borders open, has won? I think probably not.”


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