Who needs a government? Belgium does nicely without

Highly devolved Belgium breaks record for functioning without a central government

Column LAST UPDATED AT 08:26 ON Tue 7 Jun 2011

Next Monday, the list of things for which Belgium is famous will get significantly more interesting. It will become the first country to be without an official government for an entire year. In February it overtook the 249 days that Iraq took to form its first democratic government, and on 1 June it surpassed the 353 days set in 2003-4 by Cambodia to claim the world record.

Politics in the country of just under 11 million people have long revolved around the tensions between the Dutch-speaking Flemish in the north and the French-speaking Walloons who dominate the south of the country.

Indecisive elections are nothing new, but in recent years getting the various parties that represent the two sides to agree on who should run the country has become harder and harder. In the late Seventies it took 106 days to agree a new government, in 1987 it was 148 days and in 2007 negotiations lasted seven months.
In most countries, political paralysis on this scale would be expected to lead to social unrest or financial instability. There have been protests in Belgium, but not very many and so far they have all been distinctly tongue-in-cheek.

In January 15,000 people staged a 'march of shame' in Brussels to demand a government. When that failed to get results, a female Senator called on the wives of the nation's politicians to stage a sex strike until their husbands found a solution.

In February 249 students stripped to their underwear in Ghent as the crisis entered its 250th day and called for a 'chips revolution' ­ an ironic reference to the jasmine revolutions sweeping the Middle East.
In the background, negotiations between the political leaders continue, but without any great sign of urgency.

One reason that Belgium can afford to take such a relaxed approach to its crisis is that it is highly devolved, meaning the absence of a central government matters less than it would in a centralised country like Britain.

The central government runs defence, foreign affairs, finance, justice and social security, with everything else the responsibility of state and local authorities.

So the country continues to function, despite the bemusement and amusement.

The caretaker administration under the outgoing prime minister successfully held the rotating presidency of the EU in the second half of last year. Even more remarkably, in March Belgium sent four fighters to join the Nato campaign in Libya.

Meanwhile the economy is expected to grow by two per cent this year and the budget deficit to shrink to below four per cent of GDP, both figures that would make George Osborne very happy.

All in all, Belgium seems to be doing rather well without a government. ·