belgian prime Minister Yves Leterme's government collapsed yesterday after the breakdown of negotiations to resolve a long-simmering dispute between Dutch and French-speaking politicians over a bilingual voting district.
Dutch-speaking Liberals, one of Mr Leterme's five coalition parties, quit the Cabinet, accusing their Francophone counterparts of blocking a deal to break up the Brussels-area district that the Constitutional Court has ruled illegal.
Mr Leterme offered King Albert the resignation of his government. The Belgian monarch did not immediately accept it, but began consultations with key politicians on the way forward.
In a statement, the royal palace called a political crisis "inopportune", saying it could harm "Belgium's role in Europe and at an international level" – a reference to fear that the political deadlock could drag into the second half of 2010, when Belgium is to hold the EU's rotating presidency.
That is not an unreasonable fear. Mr Leterme's government took office on 20 March 2008, after a political impasse over a similar and related linguistic spat that lasted 194 days.
Linguistic disputes – rooted in history and economic differences – have long dominated politics in this country of 6.5 million Dutch speakers and four million Francophones. Belgium is divided into Dutch and French-speaking regions, which determines what single language is used on everything from mortgages and traffic signs to election ballots and divorce papers.
In 2003, Belgium's Constitutional Court ruled the bilingual Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde voting district illegal because it violates the strict separation of Dutch- and French-language regions. It comprises officially bilingual Brussels but also 20-odd towns in Dutch-speaking Flanders around the capital. Dutch-speaking politicians have long complained that the district lets Francophone parties in Brussels win votes in nearby Dutch-speaking Belgium.
But on Wednesday night the coalition – an alliance of Christian Democrats, Liberals and Socialists split into Dutch and French-speaking camps – failed to find a solution for the bilingual district.
Ex-Belgian premier Jean-Luc Dehaene put forward a deal to break up the district, but Dutch-speaking Liberals accused French-speaking parties of recalcitrance.
"We are [at] the end of our rope," Guy Vanhengel, a Flemish Liberal, said yesterday. "I think that efforts to come to a negotiated settlement are not succeeding."
Overall, Belgium has three main regions: Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north, economically-lagging Francophone Wallonia in the south and officially bilingual – but largely French-speaking – Brussels in the middle. The three regions have in the past 25 years acquired ever more autonomy.
As King Albert met with political leaders at the royal palace, about 15 members of the far-right Flemish Interest party sang the Flemish anthem and briefly hoisted a banner in the empty parliament chamber. It read: "Time For An Independent Flanders".
Flemish parties want their prosperous part of the country to be even more autonomous, notably by shifting taxes and some social security measures from the regional level. They also want more self-rule in the areas of transport, health, labour market and justice.
Francophone parties say enough powers have been devolved since the mid-1980s and accuse Dutch speakers of trying to cut loose Wallonia, troubled by desolate smokestack landscapes and an excessive jobless rate.
Brussels' revolving door
June 2007 Ruling coalition's defeat leads Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt to resign. No government for 100 days before interim rulers are appointed.
March 2008 Yves Leterme becomes Prime Minister after months of deadlock.
July 2008 Leterme offers resignation over failure to make deal on regional power-sharing negotiations. Belgium's King turns it down.
December 2008 Leterme resigns after anger over rescue of Fortis bank.
January 2009 Herman Van Rompuy becomes Prime Minister.
November 2009 Leterme returns after Van Rompuy becomes EU President.