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Belgians 'celebrate' 249 days of indecision

John Lichfield reports from Brussels on a new world record for political failure

With a mixture of anger and self-mockery, Belgium yesterday claimed a new world record for political failure.

Eight months after last June's elections, the country's linguistically-divided political parties have been unable to agree on a coalition government or a programme for constitutional reform. Whether 249 days of a caretaker government is actually a world record is open to dispute, but young Belgians have decided to celebrate it anyway.

The mocking celebrations, organised by text message, Facebook and Twitter, span the linguistic, economic and cultural frontier. They have been interpreted by some commentators as an implicit, or explicit "vote for Belgium" and as a rejection of calls for a separation of the prosperous, Dutch-speaking north from the depressed, but recovering, Francophone south.

In the medium term, however, the protests are unlikely to disturb the circular political logic of a country which is no longer able to live together but is also incapable of falling apart.

In Dutch-speaking Leuven yesterday, a long queue of students, from both communities, took part in a "chips revolution". They assembled in the town square to claim a free portion of a national dish which is loved on both sides of the cultural divide. In French-speaking Louvain-la-Neuve, another Belgian gastronomic speciality, free beer, was on offer.

In Ghent this weekend, 249 young people – one for each day without government – will strip naked as part of an open-air dance to congratulate "our wonderful politicians" on breaking the world record.

The existence of an arty-intellectual, urban, young, Belgian-minded elite, straddling the linguistic communities, is not new. The emergence of a network of pro-Belgian protesters, linked by the new media, is unprecedented.

Simon Vandereecken, 23, has a Flemish surname and a French Christian name. His family, and his friends, are scattered on both sides of Belgium's linguistic and cultural divide.

"OK, we may be an invented country, and a bizarre country, but Belgium does stand for something," he said. "At our best, we represent a willingness to accept cultural differences, a wry tolerance, a capacity to make fun of ourselves, to overcome antagonisms and to live together."

Mr Vandereecken is a graphic artist sharing a small flat in Brussels. Last month, he and a half dozen other young people – Flemings and Francophones – organised the first online rebellion against the political impasse. Their "shame march" through Brussels attracted 35,000 people, divided roughly equally between Belgium's two "linguistic sexes".

Moderate politicians and commentators on both sides have been encouraged by the protests. They point out, however, that separatist feeling amongst middle-class, suburban Flemings, continues to grow.

So much of the daily business of Belgian government has already been devolved that the absence of a national administration is awkward but not calamitous. The budget deficit last year was lower than forecast because there was no government to make spending plans.

The country is loosely strung together by its debts, its monarchy and it football team. It is bolted together by the insoluble conundrum of Brussels, a largely French-speaking city which is the capital of Europe and the capital of Belgium but also, according to Flemish history, the capital of Flanders.

There has been talk of holding another election to try to break the deadlock, but most recent opinion polls suggest that another vote would make the situation worse.

The impasse results largely from the success in the last election of Bart de Wever's Flemish separatist party, the N-VA. Ultra-right Flemish parties have campaigned to split the country in the past but have never entered the mainstream.

Mr de Wever speaks a more reassuring, pro-European, political language. Last June he took 27 per cent of the Dutch-speaking vote, pushing the traditionally dominant Flemish Christian Democrats into second place. According to a recent poll, if a new election was called, Mr de Wever would get 33 per cent of the Flemish vote.

The divisions in Belgium are not just linguistic; they are historical, cultural, political and economic. For the first century or more of its existence (from 1830), Belgium was dominated by a French-speaking elite, and economically by the heavy industries of Wallonia. Outside the great medieval cities – Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges, Mechelen and Ypres – Flanders was agricultural and poor.

From the 1970s the economy of the Dutch-speaking north boomed. The economy of the French-speaking south collapsed but is now recovering. Brussels, an increasingly multilingual city, is at once prosperous and starved of low-level jobs and public cash.

Jacky Degueldre, a Francophone political blogger, suggests that it is time to start with a blank sheet of paper and form a constitutional assembly from which all political parties and professional politicians would be excluded.

Mr Degueldre suggests that a desire to solve the country's problems exists among ordinary, intelligent Belgians of good will. The linguistically-divided political parties, whose sense of identity is now regional, not national, have become, he says, an obstacle to progress.

Simon Vandereecken says: "For years, we have been brainwashed by stereotypes peddled by people seeking our votes: 'the Walloons are lazy,' 'the Flemish are uptight and mean,'" he said. "When ordinary young Belgians get together, they see through all this nonsense."

A timetable of dithering

April 22 2010

Premier Yves Leterme's government collapses as the Flemish liberal party, Open VLD, pulls out of the coalition. The Dutch-speaking party quits after a long-running dispute with Francophone elements of the cabinet – over electoral rights in a small Brussels district – reaches impasse.

April 26

Talks fail to find a concrete solution. Belgian monarch, King Albert II, accepts Leterme's resignation.

June 14

General elections held a year early to try to force the formation of a government. The separatist New Flemish Alliance (NVA), which advocates independence for Dutch-speaking regions of Belgium, wins a shock victory. The French Socialist Party comes second, deepening divides.

October 12

Talks between the parties come to a head over tax revenue policies.

January 6 2011

Political paralysis increases the cost of insuring Belgian debt, underlining its unstabling effect on the economy.

February 8

Socialist Marleen Temmerman asks partners of politicians to withhold sex until the deadlock is resolved.

February 17

Belgium sets the record for the world's longest political crisis.