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Belgium hit by austerity strike

Belgium's first general strike in almost two decades brought parts of the country to a halt yesterday in an anti-austerity protest aimed at the new government and an EU leaders' meeting in Brussels.

The rail network closed, buses and trams sat in depots, schools and shops shut and production stopped at the factories of many companies, including carmakers Audi and Volvo and Coca Cola.

Charleroi Airport, a hub for Ryanair and other low-cost carriers, was forced to cancel all flights due to union plans to block the access road.

However, at Brussels Airport most flights were running.

The walkout coincides with the 17th EU summit in two years as the bloc battles to resolve its sovereign debt problems. The EU leaders are expected to sign off on a permanent rescue fund for the eurozone and agree on a German-driven pact for stricter budget discipline.

Belgian union chiefs, gathered outside the meeting, urged the EU to issue joint eurobonds to ease the interest pain for weaker nations and said the rich should shoulder more of the austerity burden.

"Europe must hand out eurobonds, it must help the strikers who have bailed out banks and it must take steps for long-term growth," said Rudy De Leeuw, president of the ABVV union group.

Unions called the general strike over government plans to raise the effective retirement age along with other measures designed to save €11.3bn.

But for now, many Belgians appear to have accepted the need for austerity measures. According to an opinion poll in top-selling newspaper 'Het Laatste Nieuws' last week, only 21pc of Belgians supported the strike.

Irish Independent