The European Elections: Party tricks fail to woo Belgian voters: Fiesta Time: Beer and tombola may not save coalition, Sarah Lambert reports from Geel

Belgians are happy for an excuse to party. Yesterday, on the only sunny day of the year, about 800 party-lovers in this small town squeezed into a tent, bent on enjoying the traditional rites of summer, sing-along music, beer and the chance to win on the tombola. But it was not fun for fun's sake. Unusually in a country with little appetite for politics, this was a party for Europe.

The European elections come at a crucial time. As in Britain the vote is as much a plebiscite on a deeply unpopular centre-left coalition government as it is about the construction of Europe.

In the 1960s the Flemish Christian Democrats (CVP), who provide the current Prime Minister and would-be European Commission president, Jean-Luc Dehaene, won 50 per cent of the vote in Flanders. Now, opinion polls estimate they will poll between 25 and 27 per cent of the electorate.

The party has responded with an invitation to party, harnessing the newly passed law which limits election expenses to 50m Belgian francs ( pounds 961,000) per political group, to finance events across the country. The formula is clever: a big top, lashings of beer, a team of nationally known, middle-of-the- road singers, flashing lights, and an enthusiastic compere. An agreeably drunken evening is laced with political speeches.

Most participants are there for the beer. On matters European they are sceptical. 'If it wasn't compulsory, I wouldn't vote, politicians do nothing,' one man said.

Euro-gloom hangs less heavily over Belgium than many countries. Most people think that for a small country there is safety in numbers. But although there is a sense that Europe is 'a good thing', the only true believers are those whose livelihood is directly affected by European politics.

Leo Tindemans, a former prime minister, heads the CVP list. In the Geel big top he gave an impassioned speech about the need for a common European security policy as a bulwark against war.

'When I go out on the stump the main concerns are unemployment and war in Yugoslavia, I try to turn this into a positive message - evidence for why Europe is important', he said.

His message was the need to return to the 'Christian values' of the CVP, an echo of the party's desperate efforts to forge a broader coalition in the centre.

The other half of the coalition, the Socialist Party, the dominant force in Wallonia, is in even deeper trouble.

Its credibility is at an all-time low after a spate of corruption scandals, and for its support for the government's budget-trimming measures. This has alienated the powerful unions.

Against this backdrop, the Flemish liberals (VLD) look well placed. They characterise the election as a chance to pass judgement on the government. The beneficiaries of the confusion are likely to be Greens on the left and fascists on the right. In Antwerp, the Vlaams Blok is likely to strengthen its hold and may return an MEP.

Their campaign poster features a broom - a symbol last used by the fascists in 1936 - and invites voters to sweep out traditional parties and immigrants.

Mr Tindemans is optimistic the electorate will vote for what they know, in which case the CVP list, which has two prime ministers, two cabinet ministers and the leader of Flanders, should do well. The polls suggest otherwise. Some have the coalition winning only 47 per cent. That result would loosen still further, if not destroy, its grip on power.

(Photograph omitted)

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