Language spat splits Belgian government

BRUSSELS (AP) — Belgian Premier Yves Leterme's government collapsed 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. That may take several days, Parliament President Patrick Dewael told reporters.

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 holds 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 a record 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 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, the Constitutional Court ruled the bilingual Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde voting district illegal since it violates the 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 Francophones — who have moved from Brussels into Dutch-speaking suburbs — vote for French-speaking parties in the capital.

Leterme's alliance of Christian Democrats, Liberals and Socialists — split into Dutch and French-speaking camps — took office March 20, 2008. They agreed to resolve the voting district issue by Easter of 2010, a deadline that was missed.

Leterme's government fell apart when he asked for another extension of the deadline.

"We are the end of our rope," Guy Vanhengel, a Flemish Liberal said Thursday. "I think that efforts to come to a negotiated settlement are not succeeding."

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, labor 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.