The European Elections: Party tricks fail to woo Belgian voters: Fiesta Time: Beer and tombola may not save coalition, Sarah Lambert reports from Geel
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.
sportLiverpool 5 Norwich City 1: Uruguayan striker has now scored 11 league goals against the club
arts + entsOlivier-nominated actor and singer is set to star in Lloyd Webber's musical about the Profumo affair
filmWith more than 70 per cent of early films lost, archivists are scouring the world to preserve the precious examples that remain
sportThe coach of Chalfont St Peter's under-10s football team was relieved of his duties after he sent an email to parents that said: 'I am only interested in winning'
techA piece of new hi-tech kit aims to get us scribbling again
indybestMake getting out of the wrong side of bed on cold winter mornings a thing of the past with our selection of night-time covers
life + styleClarissa Baldwin is the brains behind the slogan 'A Dog is for Life not just for Christmas'
- 1 The hardwired difference between male and female brains could explain why men are 'better at map reading'
- 2 Is this the scariest advert ever? Japanese tyre commercial comes with its own disclaimer and health warning
- 3 UK chef creates world's most expensive ready meal - a fish pie costing £314
- 4 Food poverty in UK has reached level of 'public health emergency', warn experts
- 5 I’m sure Kate Moss doesn't care about posing for Playboy. But I do
£50000 - £70000 per annum + London: Harrington Starr: Senior Automation QA Eng...
£35000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits : Harrington Starr: SQL 2008 R2/2012 Deve...
£38000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Pro-Recruitment Group: Creative Audit Se...
£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer (TSQL, P...