Could Belgium split apart?

BRUSSELS, Belgium — It’s been a bad couple of days for Belgium.

On Thursday the government collapsed, plunging the country into a renewed political turmoil; politicians from the French-speaking south and Flemish north cast doubt on the country’s survival; Flemish separatists sang for independence in the parliament; and the press around Europe warned the country is teetering on the brink of disintegration.

Then, on Friday, one of Belgium’s best-known churchmen, the bishop of the beautiful medieval city of Bruges, resigned after admitting he had “sexually abused a boy who came from my close circle of friends.” The revelations added to the sense of malaise that has gripped the kingdom.

“Is there still any point to this country?” asked the leading French-language newspaper Le Soir.

“We are a country gone mad,” exclaimed Deputy Prime Minister Laurette Onkelinx as the fifth government in three years came tumbling down.

(Watch a Flemish pop group's take on Belgium's national identity.)

The crisis could hardly have come at a worse time, as the country struggles to pull out of the economic downturn. Unemployment has soared to its highest level in 20 years and public finances are getting dangerously into the red. With the possibility that political instability could undermine investor confidence, business leaders have warned the country risks becoming a Greece on the North Sea.

“We cannot underestimate the dangers,” cautioned the Federation of Enterprises in Belgium. “It’s time to stop playing with fire.”

At the heart of the Belgian mess has always been the rift between the 6 million Dutch-speakers in the north and the 4 million French-speakers in the south.

The two communities have long drifted apart. They vote for different politicians, attend different schools and learn different histories. They don’t read each other’s books or newspapers, nor watch the same movies or television shows.

When Flemings head south for weekends in the rolling woodlands of Wallonia, or Walloons visit the beaches and historic cities of Flanders both are politely received. Apart from that, the compatriots mostly live separate lives.

Belgians will often joke that all they have in common is a love of beer, good food and a dedication to the hapless national soccer team.

Politicians from both sides are, however, forced to cohabit. Although many powers have been handed down to regional authorities over the years, the federal government that runs the country is always made up of complex coalitions of political groups from both language groups who often can’t stand each other.

The latest crisis was sparked by efforts by Flemish parties to roll back concessions granted to the French-speaking minority living in officially Dutch-speaking suburbs around Brussels.

To many Flemish politicians those rights encourage encroachment on their historic territory by francophones moving out from the capital. They are particularly incensed by arrangements dating back to the 1960s that allow French-speaking parties to campaign for votes in suburbs around Brussels that are officially Flemish.

Flemish parties in the coalition government had set an Easter deadline for an agreement to break up the so-called Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde electoral district. When that failed the Flemish Liberal Democrats, a previously moderate party, stormed out of the government, forcing Prime Minister Yves Leterme to present his resignation to King Albert II.

The monarch, whose role is largely symbolic, will spend the weekend in consultation with political leaders before deciding whether to call fresh elections, to ask Leterme to try to cobble together another coalition or to turn to somebody else to form a government.

Meanwhile, Flemish parties were threatening to use their overall majority in parliament to force a split of the contested electoral district — a move that would end the decades-old tradition of seeking a negotiated settlement to even the bitterest linguistic disputes. French-speakers warn that they might retaliate by using their majority in Brussels to limit the rights of the Flemish living there.

The separatist Flemish Interest Party celebrated the confusion by unveiling banners demanding the breakup of the country in the federal parliament and singing a nationalist anthem. In regional elections last year, more than 35 percent of Flemish voters backed Flemish Interest or other parties that openly support independence for the northern region.

However, despite the rabble-rousing words from politicians on both sides of the current dispute nobody is taking to the streets, and there is little sign that general public is anything more than bemused, bored and exasperated by the latest crisis provoked by their politicians.

“The worst thing about this is that politics is facing a crisis of legitimacy so deep that they risk making themselves irrelevant,” concluded political commentator Yves Desmet in the Flemish daily De Morgen.