Belgian soldiers are angry with their government’s sudden decision to progressively raise the age at which they can retire from 56 to 63 years old. The images we saw last week on television showing between 8,000 to 10,000 soldiers confronting the police, before shaking hands with them at the end of the protest, surprised us.
We also discovered on this occasion that the Belgian military can choose to join on of four “trade” unions, something inimaginable for the French armed forces, even if the Belgians are not alone in having military unions. According to Euromil, the European organisation of military associations which is headquartered in Brussels, military personnel of almost all European countries (except Italy, Estonia, Latvia and Romania) have the right to join an association but only a few countries tolerate military unions. Amongst these: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Malta, the Netherlands, Serbia and Sweden.
In France military personnel won the right to form professional associations in July 2015 in the framework of the military programme law 2014-19 after two rulings made by the European Court of Human Rights in October 2014: Matelly v. France and ADEFDROMIL v. France.
We wanted to find out a bit more about why the Belgian military were angry and, as they are unionised, who better to ask than a union leader, Patrick Descy, permanent secretary of CGSP-Défense.
He told us that until now “when a Belgian soldier signed up, he was appointed for life and automatically retired at the age of 56. He then had the right to a complete pension (75% of his average salary over the last five years of service) if he’d served for 37.5 years. Today, not only might his pension be lower because the average could be calculated over the last 10 years of service, but the retirement age would be set at 63 AND 42 years of service” between now and 2030.
And he says “the conditional tense is necessary because in the urgency of a budgetary conclave, no negotiations were held beforehand with the military personnel unions and we don’t even have one line of text to enlighten us. The defence ministry himself is incapable of answering questions from parliament.“
It was the brutality of the measure which caused widespread anger, because during his entire career a Belgian soldier is told that even if he’s not very well paid “his pension is a differed salary, one that is attractive and which he’ll get earlier than others,” Descy told us. He added that by “changing the rules of the game two minutes before the end of the match, the blind decision is painful for those at the end of their career but is also dramatic for the 2016-2030 strategic plan which was adopted this summer. It was meant to rejuvenate the age pyramid and cut personnel numbers from 30,000 to 25,000.” And he argues that by keeping soldiers on at 100% of their salary instead of 75% on pensions, the recruitment of youngsters will be blocked.
As soldiers are only allowed to demonstrate during their days off and, like all other soldiers in Europe, they are not allowed to strike, they chose a public holiday for their protest. The 15 November is the King’s Day in Belgium.
Belgian Defence Minister Steven Vandeput met the four military unions after the demonstration. He said in a statement that he would do all he could “to give the department and its collaborators the future they deserve,” but added that he did not want to “make promises that I may not be able to keep.”
Vandeput qualified the presence of 8,000 soldiers on the street as a “very important signal” and said he would ask his “colleague in charge of pensions, Daniel Bacquelaine, to open a social dialogue this year and to keep in mind the specificity of the military profession.”