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Protesters march in Brussels on October 7, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

'The People Are Livid': 100,000 March Against 'Pick-Pocket' Austerity in Brussels

Police use water cannons as workers lead march through streets in response to new center-right government's cuts to social services

Nadia Prupis

Anti-austerity demonstrations in Belgium on Wednesday drew tens of thousands of people—some of whom clashed with police and were sprayed by water cannons as they marched through Brussels demanding an end to new measures which they say unfairly target workers and favor corporations.

Organized by Belgium's three largest unions, the protests came in response to new rules pushed through by the country's center-right coalition government, led by Prime Minister Charles Michel, in its first month in office, including wage freezes amid rising inflation, an increase in the retirement age, cuts to social services, and punitive taxes on lower-wage earners.

"The signal is clear. People are angry, livid. This government's policies are totally unbalanced," Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (ACV-CSC) chief Marc Leemans told Reuters.

"They are hitting the workers, the unemployed," one protester, Philippe Dubois, told the BBC. "They are not looking for money where it is."

Marie-Helene Ska, ACV-CSC secretary general, added, "The government tells us and all of the parties tell us that there's no alternative. We don't contest that they have to find 11bn euros (£8.6bn; $13.6bn) but we've been saying for a long time that it's possible to find this money elsewhere, rather than in the pockets of the workers."

The largely peaceful protests came to a chaotic end after Belgian police turned water cannons and tear gas onto the crowds, arresting at least 30 people while another 50 were reported injured.

But the response from police has not deterred organizers, who are planning a series of regional, weekly strikes beginning next month, along with a nationwide strike on December 15.

Talks between union leaders and the prime minister, who came to power last October, are set to start Thursday.

Last year, some 12,000 protesters staged similar demonstrations. Wednesday's rally reportedly drew from 80,000 to 100,000 people—making it one of Belgium's biggest demonstrations since World War II.

Just a day earlier, anti-austerity campaigns flourished elsewhere in Europe, with hundreds in the UK gathering in front of a Conservative Party conference in Manchester to protest cuts to the National Health Service (NHS).

"People know that if we don’t do anything we won't have a health service in five to 10 years' time," Karen Reissmann, a health worker, told the Guardian on Tuesday. "It's being starved of funds and privatized and marketized more and more … [the Conservatives] don’t stand up for ordinary people. They stand up for their rich friends. I think the 99% don’t want that any more."

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