Language row topples Belgian government
BELGIUM was thrown into political turmoil yesterday after the country's Prime Minister Yves Leterme's government collapsed.
The shaky government disintergrated after negotiations broke down to resolve a long-standing dispute between Dutch and French-speaking politicians over a bilingual voting district.
Dutch-speaking Liberals, one of Mr Leterme's five coalition parties, stormed out of cabinet, accusing its Francophone counterparts of blocking a deal to break up the Brussels-area district the constitutional court ruled illegal in 2003.
Mr Leterme then 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 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 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.
The nation is mostly divided into Dutch-speaking districts and French-speaking ones, and that 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 districts. 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.