Belgium’s Hottest Winter

Tens of thousands of students in Europe have launched "school strikes" to demand a Green New Deal and reject their governments' moderation on climate change.

Schoolchildren take part in a nation-wide student climate march in George Square on February 15, 2019 in Glasgow, United Kingdom. Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

On December 29, two Belgian girls launched a call for a school students’ strike in defense of the climate. Angered by the Belgian government’s lack of climate policy, they were also inspired by the example of Swedish sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg, who had started a similar strike in her country. Nobody expected a big turnout; the girls themselves hoped for a few dozens of protesters. The most important thing was to give the signal that they cared. But two weeks later, the country was stunned as a least three thousand school kids marched through the streets of Brussels in an unauthorized but enthusiastic demonstration.

Stern responses piled in to dismiss their efforts. “I am not a fan of religious fundamentalism, or of climate fundamentalism either.” Thus spoke Rik Torfs, former headmaster of the Catholic University of Louvain. “The climate movement seems friendly enough, but it is infiltrated by the Belgian Workers’ Party and other extremists,” tweeted liberal economist Geert Noels.

The school kids’ response? “Thanks for underestimating us.” The following week, 12,500 took to the streets the week after. “All this striking is seriously damaging the youth’s development” droned Peter De Roover, leader of the hard-right N-VA fraction in parliament. “Smartphones don’t grow on trees,” warned Marc De Vos of think tank Itinera. But by January 24, thirty-five thousand school kids were out in the streets, demanding an ambitious climate policy.

Even in the face of political disdain, these unexpected demonstrations show that young people are willing to stand up for their future. And decisively, they are also combining the call for social and climate justice. Emerging also in other European countries, the schoolkids’ protests point to the possibility of a different kind of society.

Workers for the Climate

The climate strike movement has already become the largest mobilization of Belgian secondary school students in four decades, and has begun to spread to cities and communities all over the country.

This has also become part of a wider revolt against austerity. Although shareholders in Belgian corporations received more than €12 billion of dividends last year, the official limits for workers’ wage rises (issued by a Central Council of the Economy) were set at 0.8 percent. Indeed, using the excuse that there is a “pay gap” over neighboring countries, the Belgian government has been blocking wage rises for over two decades. New taxes on fuel, electricity, and even sugar have raised the cost of living significantly in the last years, pushing down Belgians’ purchasing power. Ministers earning €10,000 a month failed to understand that people had enough of wage restraints.

Massive union demonstrations have already halted drastic reforms of the retirement system. But the general strike in response to the wage restraint has raised the stakes even further. On February 13, the largest strike in five years put the country to a standstill. Belgian airspace was completely closed, activity in the country’s three sea ports was almost entirely stopped. Almost eight out of ten large companies faced disruption. The government had no other option than announcing it would recalculate the margin for wage increases.

This was also the point at which the climate and anti-austerity protests combined. Early in the morning of the general strike, students entering their sixth week of school strikes visited the picket lines to express their solidarity. The day after that, a new group of trade unionists and working Belgians called “Workers For the Climate” showed up to support at least fifteen thousand youngsters in a fresh march through the streets of Brussels, while many thousands more showed up at protests around the country. While opinion makers, journalists, and politicians had been convinced that the demands for wages and climate policy were irreconcilable, climate strikers and trade unionists joined forces, calling for a global climate strike on March 15.

Of All Ages

Just three months ago this whole scenario was entirely unpredictable. Back in December, the headlines were dominated by the far right, as Belgium’s government collapsed in a crisis over the signing of a United Nations accord on migration. With elections called for May 26, Belgians steeled themselves for a campaign expected to revolve around migration, national security, and nationalism. But things have turned out rather differently. Not everybody was prepared to play the game of the Right.

What they had ignored was that on December 2, sixty-five thousand people had gathered in the largest climate march Belgium had ever seen. Even the liberal Climate Minister participated in the rally, insisting that she had taken on board the demonstrators’ demands. Many participants were hopeful that finally, the government would take action for the climate.

But the day after, Belgium refused to join the High Ambition Coalition, a group of countries that call for accelerated policies to deal with climate change. Two days after the enormous march, Belgium voted against higher European targets for energy efficiency and then abstained from a vote for higher renewable energy targets.

This was a cold shower for all those who had hoped their call would be heard. And a wake-up signal for the youth to pass on to more radical action: the school strike.

When the high-schoolers walked out, they had one clear goal in common: Belgium had to adopt an ambitious climate policy. They had enough of ministers’ excuses and wanted to see concrete actions to lower the country’s carbon footprint.

The establishment did everything possible to make the rising climate movement appear as a call for citizens to have to take on an extra financial burden; as if it were just an appeal for higher eco-taxes on planes, carbon, or miles driven by car. Right-wing parties tried to drive a wedge between ecological and social issues. But polling showed that the opposite was true: while seven out of ten respondents indicated serious concerns about global warming, six out of ten was not prepared to pay extra taxes to solve the problem.

Seeking to answer this contradiction, the manifesto issued by the Students for Climate group (made up of students in higher education) immediately posed the problem of social justice. “Transitioning to a CO2-neutral Belgium needs to be socially fair,” they stated. “We say yes to social measures such as affordable public transport and renewable energy, but we say no to unfair taxation pushed onto regular citizens.”

In the weekly demonstrations, “Climate justice!” became by far the most popular slogan. And where political parties first had to rush to bring up new propositions for an ambitious climate policy, now they had to prove that their measures would be socially just. Once again, the young people led the agenda.

The unions followed a similar line. After five years under a right-wing government, the public debate was dominated by such “evergreen” tropes as “it’s entrepreneurs who create wealth” and “the wages should be held back even more in order to keep Belgium competitive with our neighbors.” The gilets jaunes movement which began in France had already pushed the issue of excessive taxes and lowering purchasing power into Belgian public debate — as they say, when it rains in Paris, it’s dripping in Brussels. Yet the 0.8 percent margin at the basis of wage negotiations hadn’t sparked much reaction among the main parliamentary parties.

This changed when the unions launched their campaign “Fight for Fourteen” (i.e. a €14 an hour minimum wage), inspired by the American campaign for a $15 per hour rate. The impressive February 13 strike demanded that the wealth produced by workers, should go to those who produce it. “There is no margin for raising wages,” responded the head of the Belgian employers’ association. But once enterprises throughout the country had been brought to a standstill, it turned out there was space to ease the pressure on purchasing power after all.

Red and Green Come Together

Exercise stimulates thought. Going for a walk can inspire out-of-the-box ideas, while sitting behind one’s desk one can only retread the same uninspired trains of thought. Hundreds of hours of empty talk from the plush parliamentary benches have led us nowhere. It is only thanks to this groundswell from below that the ideas on climate and the distribution of wealth are changing.

Alarming climate reports and the extreme weather of last summer have not lead to firm measures to combat global warming. Studies showing a shift of income from labor to capital did not result in any wide-reaching debate on increasing inequality. Rather, the climate movement and the unions have been able to set the agenda by mobilizing tens of thousands of strikers.

And both movements have the same enemy. The big businesses responsible for depleting nature are the same ones exploiting workers. Workers realize that there are no jobs on a dead planet. And climate activists understand that a climate policy that is not socially just will never be able to mobilize the whole of society behind the fight for a green economy.

On March 15, these movements promise to come together in a global strike for a better climate. Launched by the striking students, the day of action also seeks support from the whole of society. The General Central (AC), the largest federation of the Socialist trade union, has already answered with a strike notice.

Together, the climate strikers and workers can really start to make a difference. This message was perhaps best of all expressed by Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old who lit the fire of worldwide climate strikes. As she told the European Commission, “Once you have done your homework you realize that we need new politics. We need new economics where everything is based on a rapidly declining and extremely limited global carbon budget. But that is not enough. We need a whole new way of thinking. The political system that you have created is all about competition. You cheat when you can because all that matters is to win, to get power. That must come to an end. We must stop competing with each other. We need to cooperate and work together and share the resources of the planet in a fair way.”