Graffiti deface a bilingual signpost in Brussels.
The “survival” of Belgium as a unified country was called into question last night after a row between French and Dutch speakers brought the government to the verge of collapse. The wrangle has already brought down the government four times in the past three years but the latest spat is the gravest yet and threatens to split the country into Flemish areas and French-speaking areas.
King Albert II warned politicians that the political crisis “seriously threatens” the country’s role in Europe, after the Prime Minister, Yves Leterme tendered his resignation.
Mr Leterme stepped down after talks broke down over plants to give French speakers in the suburbs of Brussels special voting powers which the Flemish parties want to see denied.
The failure to reach a deal led the Flemish liberal party, Open VLD, to pull out of the five-party ruling coalition and just hours later Mr Leterme resigned. King Albert has delayed a decision on whether to accept the resignation.
Dutch speakers make up 60 percent of the population in Belgium, where only the capital Brussels is officially bilingual. Prosperous Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north wants greater autonomy, whereas poorer, French-speaking Wallonia in the south argues enough powers have been devolved.
The Brussels-Hal-Vilvorde districts at the centre of the row have acted as a focal point for these deep-seated linguistic tensions, as they are Flemish-run but with a sizeable French-speaking community.
Some Wallon politicians saw the latest crisis as a Flemish plot to break up Belgium.
“There was no other choice but for the government to resign,” said Didier Reynders, the finance minister.
Yesterday, Olivier Maingain, a francophone leader, promised that the collapse of the coalition “won’t win Flanders what it really wants, separation and the end of the country”.
However, Pierre Vercauteren, a political analyst at the University of Mons in Belgium, warned that the country was perhaps heading for implosion. “There is less and less belief in Belgium’s survival in the mid to long term,” he said.
The Flemish Mr Leterme, 49, has hardly helped national unity by once describing Belgium’s French-speaking half as “an accident of history” that lacked the “intellectual capacity” to learn Dutch, and suggesting that all the Belgian people share is their “king, national football team and certain beers”.
This is the third time he has tendered his resignation.
His previous stint at government in 2008 saw Belgium lurch from one crisis to another, fuelling concerns that the country could break apart.
After initially refusing his resignation, the king finally accepted it when the prime minister was accused of interfering with the course of justice in 2008. But he returned last November after his replacement, Herman von Rompuy, was elected president of the European Council.
The country, which is home to European Union institutions and the NATO military alliance, takes over the six-month European Union presidency on July 1, and the domestic crisis throws into doubt its ability to set any meaningful EU agenda.
The government collapse also threw into doubt what had promised to be an historic parliamentary debate on a law that would ban full-face Muslim veils being worn in public.
It would have been the first such law introduced by a European country, coming a day after the French government said it would also push through a total ban of the burka and niqab this year.
Mr Leterme’s government still theoretically commands a tiny majority in the lower house of parliament even without Open VLD.
But the party’s withdrawal scuppered the delicate balance between Flemish and francophone parties, as only one Flemish group remains in the coalition – Mr Leterme’s Christian Democrat group.