The 541 days are surely an excellent argument to say that Belgium is on the brink of collapse. But they show at least as much of a strong will to survive. Why otherwise would a majority of politicians go at such extreme lengths to keep the country afloat?
What happened? There were only two winners of the parliamentary elections on 13 June, 2010: the centre-right Flemish nationalists (NVA) of Bart de Wever and the centre-left French-speaking socialists (PS) of Elio di Rupo. The former all of a sudden became the biggest group in parliament, with 27 of the 150 seats, whereas they had only five in the previous assembly. The latter obtained 26 seats. In an electoral landscape, fragmented along language-lines, both were now by far the largest party in their community.
The Flemish nationalists advocate an independent Flanders, but only in the long run. Like in Scotland and Catalonia, a large – and growing – part of public opinion in Flanders is ready to embrace more autonomy if not independence, but only on the condition that the risks of the separation process can be defined and remain limited.
The French-speaking socialists have for a long time been the most stubborn conservative socialists on the continent, although Mr di Rupo tried to move his party slowly towards to the centre.
So in the summer of 2010 there was genuine hope that with only one real leader left at each side of the language line, both would compromise on a new design for the country: a thorough process of decentralisation, but spread long enough over time to give the French-speaking parts of Belgium – Brussels and Wallonia – years to adapt to fiscal responsibility.
It did not happen. The leadership of both parties met in secret in July 2010 to conclude that their differences remained unbridgeable. The PS, and in fact all French-speaking parties, were not ready to accept radical devolution. Mr de Wever, the leader of the Flemish nationalists, then lost his limited interest in taking command as the largest party, to save Belgium, a state most of his followers despise.
What followed was almost a year of shadow boxing, whereby Mr di Rupo – who contrary to his Flemish counterpart was eager to take the command and become prime minister – finally succeeded in luring the three traditional parties in Flanders (Christian democrats, liberals and socialists) into negotiations without the nationalists.
He put a tempting proposal on the table early in July 2011. What happened then is still in dispute: the three traditional parties claim they agreed with Mr de Wever to say “yes, but” – which he denies – but that the leader of the NVA then went on TV with a radical “no”. After a thunderous speech from King Albert on National Day (21 July) and three weeks of holiday, Mr di Rupo finally succeeded in making agreements.
The last words of the 177- page agreement to form a government were written on 1 December. In the end it is not a new design for the country, but a classic Belgian compromise: almost unreadable, with no grand visions and no great leaps forward, but full of step-by-step reforms.
The new government, a six-party coalition of the three traditional parties of both communities, was sworn in on Tuesday. Mr di Rupo, the new prime minister, is even learning, bit by bit, to speak Dutch.
Is Belgium saved? Much depends on the further evolutions inside the EU and on the internal economic balance of Belgium. For decades Flanders and French-speaking Belgium have been drifting apart, as the former had a fast- growing economy and the latter suffered from a prolonged slump after the decay of coal and steel industries.
But there are indications that the south is finally picking up, whereas Flanders, in the north, seems to be running out of steam.
Mr de Wever, now the leader of the opposition, is biding his time. He can hope to do still better in the 2014 elections, after which he will necessarily have to push through his programme of economic reform and radical devolution, maybe up to the point where French-speaking Belgium will no longer be willing to negotiate.
• Rolf Falter is a former journalist for De Standaard. He now works for the European Parliament.