So Belgium finally has a new government. 89 of the 150 deputies of the Lower House gave the first government of Mr. Elio di Rupo their support in the first confidence vote today.
But do not rush into hasty conclusions. The 541 days that were needed to negotiate this government are surely an excellent argument to say that Belgium is on the brink of collapse. But they show at least as much 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 of June the 13th 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 5 in the previous assembly. The latter, the PS, obtained 26 seats. In an electoral landscape that is 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 (and before in Quebec) 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 are clearly smaller than the possible (and still to prove) benefits. That is a rather high threshold in a democracy.The French-speaking socialists of Belgium 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 inside Belgium, both together 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 Wallony - years to adapt to fiscal responsibility.
It did not happen. The leadership of both parties met in secret during a weekend July 2010 in a manor outside Brussels near the language-line, just to conclude that their differences remained unbridgeable. The PS, and in fact all French-speaking parties, were not ready to accept radical devolution. De Wever, the leader of the Flemish nationalist, then lost his interest – that had anyway been limited from the beginning – in taking command as largest party to save Belgium, a state most of his followers despise.
What followed was almost a year of shadow boxing, whereby 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, who all had lost in the elections) in 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 traditionals claim they agreed with De Wever to say ‘yes, but’ - what the latter 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 (July 21) and three weeks of holiday di Rupo finally succeeded in making agreements. First, on the 15th of September, on the thorny issue of the institutional framework for the largest and only bilingual electoral district of the country: Brussels-Hal-Vilvorde. Then on all pending institutional questions (October), and on the huge budget cuts that were needed (November).
The last words of the 177 pages government-agreement were written on the 1st of 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 and a sense of pragmatism that is never going to arouse enthusiasm among the voters. The process of devolution will get a new twist, the sixth one since it started 40 years ago, but do not expect more transparent or lighter structures.
The new government, a six-party coalition of the three traditional parties of both communities, was sworn in on Tuesday, 541 days after the elections. Mr. di Rupo, the 60-year old new prime minister, is learning bit by bit to speak Dutch, but there is still a lot of criticism in Flanders on that point.
Is Belgium saved? Again: do not rush into hasty conclusions. Much depends on the further evolutions inside the EU – especially the relation between Germany and France, or in general the southern and the Nordic countries – 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 run out of steam. This could of course also influence the relation between both communities and their respective electoral behaviour, which has been different since almost a century.
Mr. De Wever, now the leader of the opposition, is biding his time. He can hope do to still better in the elections next time (2014), after which he will necessarily have to push through his program of economic reform and radical devolution, maybe up to the point where French-speaking Belgium will no longer accept to negotiate. The (notoriously unreliable) polls in Belgium seem to give him right, at least for the moment.
(This article was published in a shorter version in The Scotsman on Thursday the 8th of December)