Banner protesting austerity measures at roundabout in Brussels. NewsHour photo by Morgan Till.
BRUSSELS, Belgium | Brussels is known for its pleasing mishmash of medieval, 17th century and Art Nouveau buildings. It’s prized for moules-and-frites and Michelin-star gastronomic delights that prompted New York Times columnist and foodie R.W. Apple to tout Brussels as a rival to Paris for discerning gourmands. And it’s appreciated for the general good humor of the locals, so much friendlier it’s said than Parisians.
But Belgians are not in good humor these days.
Today, as the 27 European Union leaders gather here for a summit on the continent’s debt crisis, the city is a snarl of blocked roadways, stalled trains and buses, and many shuttered schools and shops. The mess is the work of the transport workers and other unions, who called a 24-hour general strike to protest austerity measures being imposed to meet EU cost-cutting targets. “Non a le pacte de compétitivité et d’austérité, oui a le pacte de solidarité” (“No to a pact of competition and austerity, yes to a pact of solidarity”) read the banner around the traffic circle in front of EU headquarters.
And it isn’t just the small band of protestors who are complaining. Ordinary Belgians we spoke with sounded positively grumpy about deficit-reduction cuts, their country’s stalled economy and what many see as inept leadership by the compromise choice for prime minister selected last December after an 18-month post-election stalemate.
Boy Scouts in Grand Place. NewsHour photo by Margaret Warner.
On Sunday afternoon in the landmark Grand Place, a visiting troop of Boy Scouts from Halle was enjoying their day trip to the capital. But in the Manneken Restaurant just off the Grand Place, warmed by wine-red stucco walls, wood paneling and the cozy glow of a fire, a veteran waiter snorted derisively when asked how business was. “The same as Italy, or London, Greece, Spain…” 55-year-old Jose Lopez said with a grimace. “Pfft… There is the big man and the little man, and in between, there’s no one. It’s very difficult.”
Waiter Jose Lopez. NewsHour photo by Margaret Warner.
Belgium, like many countries in Europe, is carrying a level of deficit (4.2 percent of GDP) and national debt (95 percent of GDP) that the markets are finding unacceptable. The prime minister’s prescription: to slash more than 11 billion euros from the budget this year with a combination of spending cuts, tax increases, reductions in state workers’ pay and hikes in the retirement age. But the country’s economic growth contracted at the end of 2011, compounding the debt and deficit problems and prompting Prime Minister Elio di Rupo to propose yet more cuts this month. Can Belgium work its way out of debt without growing? Most economists here are doubtful.
Worse, it appears, is a crisis of confidence in the country’s political leaders. Waiter Lopez’s parents came here from Spain when he was a boy in search of a better life. And they found it. But no longer, he said. Asked why, he shot back: “Ask the people who run the country why our lives are worse.”
On its own small scale, Belgium mirrors the tensions that ail the EU as a whole. It’s split between a more prosperous and productive Dutch-speaking north, Flanders, a less productive, high unemployment French-speaking south. And voters in the north are increasingly resentful of having to support the south. The country is plagued not only by unsustainable public debt and deficits, but by an aging population. And high tech companies say that increasingly, they can’t find workers trained in the skills they need.
Fin de Siecle Restaurant in Brussels. NewsHour photo by Margaret Warner.
This isn’t Greece, to be sure. Belgium isn’t a basket case. On a Sunday night, many Brussels restaurants are hopping. The country’s economic woes could be managed and overcome — and so could Europe’s if its citizens trusted their leaders to chart the way out. But in many quarters here, at least, that isn’t the case. “I don’t agree with the strikers, but why should we have to follow the decisions of someone we didn’t all elect?” said a 30-something hotel desk manager. It’s a question many unsettled Europeans from north to south are asking.