King Albert II accepted the Belgium government's resignation yesterday after negotiations failed to resolve a long-simmering dispute between Dutch- and French-speaking politicians over a bilingual voting district in and around Brussels.
The king had waited since last week to see if last-ditch talks could keep the coalition government of Yves Leterme together. But late yesterday it became clear that the differences between the linguistic groups were too deep. Elections could now be called in early June.
"I regret that the necessary dialogue to achieve a negotiated settlement did not produce the result we hoped for," the prime minister said in a statement.
Belgian governments have a long tradition of teetering on the brink of linguistic collapse.
For half a century, they have brokered ever more complicated compromises to keep the country from falling apart at the expense of giving the linguistic groups more autonomy. Yet the endless bickering has not stopped the nation being among the most prosperous in Europe.
The crisis comes at an inopportune moment, with Belgium taking over the rotating presidency of the European Union on July 1.