BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgian unions grounded all flights, halted all trains and closed hundreds of factories and offices in a nationwide strike on Monday in protest over the government’s planned pension reforms and budget cuts.
In the country’s first general strike since 2005, Brussels Airport cancelled around 600 flights as a stoppage by air traffic controllers meant no planes could take off or land in Belgium.
Eurostar, which operates high-speed rail services between Brussels and London, terminated all Brussels-bound trains in Lille, France. Most trains on the high-speed Thalys link to Germany, France and the Netherlands were also cancelled.
Local bus, tram and metro services were hit.
However, Belgian highways were surprisingly clear and automobile association Touring said many people had clearly got the message to work at home or take a day off.
At the port of Antwerp, among Europe’s busiest, more than 50 vessels were unable to enter or leave. In the western city of Ghent, unions blocked a major road by a plant of steelmaker ArcelorMittal.
In Brussels, police held back striking workers who sought to throw eggs and fireworks at the offices of Flemish separatist party N-VA, one of the four parties in the Belgian government.
Unions called the strike a great success, but Flemish business group Voka said 77 percent of the firms it surveyed in Brussels and the northern region of Flanders had all their workers in.
A siege in Ghent also knocked the strike off the front pages of most local media websites.
The signals from Belgian high streets were also mixed. Striking workers shut two of Ikea’s six Belgian stores, while in many commercial districts of Brussels about half of the stores were open.
The centre-right government of Prime Minister Charles Michel, which took office in mid-October, plans to raise the retirement age and skip a scheduled inflation-linked wage increase that was due in 2015.
Belgium needs to keep its public sector deficit below three percent of annual national output this year and next. It is already at risk of EU disciplinary proceedings over a public debt load of around 100 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).
Unions have staged a series of one-day regional strikes in the past few weeks, culminating in Monday’s national action. It was not immediately clear whether they planned further action.
Reporting By Philip Blenkinsop and Robert-Jan Bartunek; Editing by Gareth Jones