Language spat splits Belgium
Brussels - Belgian Premier Yves Leterme's government collapsed on Thursday after negotiations broke down to resolve a long-simmering dispute between Dutch- and French-speaking politicians over a bilingual voting district.
Dutch-speaking Liberals, one of Leterme's five coalition parties, quit the Cabinet, accusing its Francophone counterparts of blocking a deal to break up the Brussels-area district the constitutional court ruled illegal in 2003.
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".
It said it can 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. Leterme's government took office March 20 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 4 million Francophones.
Belgium is divided in 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 the district lets Francophone parties in Brussels win votes in nearby Dutch-speaking Belgium.
After a 194-day political deadlock over linguistic issues, Leterme's alliance of Christian Democrats, Liberals and Socialists - split into Dutch and French-speaking camps - took office March 20, 2008.
But on Wednesday night the coalition 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 the end of our rope," Guy Vanhengel, a Flemish Liberal said on Thursday. "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 federal to the regional level. They also want more self-rule in transport, health, labour market and justice areas.
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.
It is that tense backdrop that feeds the debate over the contentious voting district.