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Belgians have fun with government shutdown

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Thursday, February 17, 2011 - 10:43 am

BRUSSELS — Belgium’s citizens are marking 249 days without a government today, a figure that they are treating as a world record.

Day to day the crisis pits the leaders of 6 million Dutch-speaking Flemings against those of 4.5 million French speakers, but people from across the country are putting aside their differences to celebrate the occasion.

“Finally world champion” the usually serious De Standaard headlined its Thursday edition, tongue firmly in cheek.

“Of course it is serious that we have no federal government,” said Kris Peeters, the minister president of Flanders in an interview. “But on the other hand, I appreciate very much the humor of certain actions.”

It is arguable whether 249 really is the 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 Peeters.

Beyond optimism, Belgians have also made it a moral duty to make fun of themselves.

“We never take ourselves seriously. We are the country of the Smurfs, of Tintin, of Rene Magritte and surrealism. So it is a country that, compared with England or France, we dare to make fun of ourselves,” said Brussels politician Luckas Vander Taelen.

Nevertheless, Belgium remains one of the wealthiest nations in the world, giving people the luxury to take things with a chuckle.

“It takes time. A world record is not a shame,” he said.