If you’ve been following the international news, you’ll probably know that Belgium went without a proper government for over 500 days. A ‘government of current affairs’ that in 2009 had ‘fallen’ over language-related issues stayed at the helm for one and a half year, trying to keep the country out of stormy international waters. It must be said that they were rather successful and in the end everybody was beginning to wonder whether we actually needed a new government. Especially as the coalition of initially eight and later six political parties that had been trying to form a new government didn’t seem to make any progress. It wasn’t until the international rating bureaus Standard and Poor’s and Moody’s lowered Belgium’s rating, that the negotiators realized that they were toying with the country’s (and its population’s) future.
Despite de national strike, no traffic jams on this quiet country lane.
Apart from the language issues, the budget and the savings imposed by ‘Europe’ proved to be problems that were hard to crack, especially as the left and the right wing parties had completely opposite views on matters like employment, retirement, taxes, etc. Everybody knows that our social security system - which is very generous and therefore subject to a lot of abuse – is threatened and requires a serious reform. I’ll spare you the details, but the touchiest issue was the legal retirement age. Under the current legislation it is in some exceptional cases possible to retire at the age of 55. The average nowadays is 59, while the legal retirement age is 65. A career of minimum 35 years is required to enjoy full pension benefits.
Before the end of this year (2011) the new government wants the parliament to vote a law gradually increasing the minimum age to 62 by 2017 and a minimum career of 40 year to be entitled to the same benefits. It goes without saying that the Trade Unions are extremely upset, especially as the minister in charge refuses to negotiate the terms of the new law with them. As a result the civil servants have gone on strike today and the whole country has come to a standstill … except for people like me who work in the private sector.
There are no trains, buses, trams or metros. Village and town halls are closed, public hospitals and fire stations are running on weekend roster. Schools are closed or only provide limited daycare facilities. The different national radio and television channels are broadcasting a unique program. Postmen are not supposed to deliver any mail today, but apparently 80% of them have ignored the orders of the Trade Unions. And so did my loyal postman Wim. He didn’t bring any Christmas cards though. So I’m somewhat disappointed!
Several of my colleagues didn’t show up today, because of the lack of public transport. And traffic was denser as usual, with more people using their car to get to work. Two busy roads into Brussels were blocked this morning by angry Trade Unionists.
Public opinion is much divided over the strike. Left wing supporters refuse to accept the much needed changes, while centre and right wing followers realize that they are inevitable to protect the continuity of the welfare state for future generations.
How do these changes affect me? I will probably have to work till 60, or even maybe 62 or 63, instead of the expected age of 58. And I know that I will be paying more taxes. So for the time being, I’ll put my dreams of moving to France in the bottom drawer of the freezer, hoping that they will keep for another 5 to 8 years!
P.S. I just noticed that this is my 700th post. Hmmm, that calls for a celebration!