Belgium tottered closer to the constitutional abyss yesterday. After five months of failed efforts to create a coalition national government – a Belgian record – Dutch and French-speaking politicians lit the fuse on a new linguistic quarrel.
Flemish parties voted in parliament to deny tens of thousands of French-speakers in the suburbs of Brussels the right to vote for Francophone parties.
French-speaking politicians had warned that such a vote was a "provocation" which would destroy the latest attempts to build a government acceptable to both of the country's main language communities.
Flemish politicians insisted on going ahead with the vote after French-speaking parties walked out of the parliamentary chamber.
French-speaking politicians said that coalition talks might now collapse but suggested that some kind of agreement could still be salvaged to set up a caretaker government until tempers cooled.
Much progress seemed to have been made in recent weeks on agreeing a government programme covering issues such as immigration and economic policy. The talks failed, however, to find any common ground on linguistic and constitutional questions, including the long-simmering dispute over voting rights in greater Brussels.
Many tens of thousands of French-speaking Belgians have moved out of the mostly Francophone capital into the leafy, theoretically Dutch-speaking suburbs. Under the old rules, they were exempt from the law which forces all voters in Dutch-speaking areas to vote for Dutch-speaking parties in national elections.
A giant constituency was created, covering the capital and part of its suburbs – Bruxelles-Hal-Vilvoorde – in which parties from both communities could canvass for votes. Flemish politicians have long complained that this infringes the clear dividing line between linguistic communities agreed in the 1950s.
Flemish parties voted yesterday to break up the constituency, forcing all but a few thousand of the estimated 120,000 French-speakers in the greater Brussels suburbs to vote for Flemish politicians.