BRUSSELS – What would be a humiliation for many turned into a party for Belgium on Thursday as the country’s citizens marked 249 days without a government, a figure that they are treating as a world record in political waffling.
On every other day, the crisis pits the leaders of 6 million Dutch-speakers against those of 4.5 million French speakers, but people from across the country put aside their differences to celebrate the occasion.
In the French-speaking town of Louvain-la-Neuve, more than 1,000 people bearing the colors of the Belgian flag formed the words “Een-Un” – “One is One” in Dutch and French – calling for more unity instead of the infighting, sniping and backbiting that has made it impossible to form a national government.
In Dutch-speaking Ghent, organizers failed to persuade 249 people to strip naked, but a few dozen got down to their underwear. In Leuven, a long line of students snaked through the central square for a free portion of fries, Belgium’s beloved national dish.
“Finally world champion” the usually serious De Standaard headlined its Thursday edition, tongue firmly in cheek.
It is arguable whether 249 really is the world record. Iraq took 249 days to get the outlines of a government agreement last year, but the approval of that government took a further 40 days. Still, the way things are going, Belgium will have little problem claiming the record whichever standard is used.
After general elections on June 13 last year, Belgium’s major parties began talks to force through the biggest constitutional reform in decades to keep both linguistic groups happy. But since their interests are often diametrically opposed, they ran into one deadlock after another.
King Albert had to appoint and accept the resignation of one go-between after another as the major parties refused to move far from their pre-election position. It is a process which continues to this day. The chances of success for the current negotiator, caretaker Finance Minister Didier Reynders, are seen as slim and the specter of new elections to break the deadlock are looming.
“There is a moral duty to be optimistic. And that is very important also in politics,” said Flanders’ Minister President Kris Peeters in an interview.
Beyond optimism, Belgians have also made it a moral duty to make fun of themselves.
At the heart of the political deadlock is an attempt to broker a new constitution with increased regional autonomy to reflect that the two language communities have increasingly grown apart. Richer Flanders wants as much autonomy as possible, while the Francophone region wants to retain a larger sense of national unity which also guarantees more financial solidarity.
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