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Could Belgium split apart?

The Belgian government has fallen — again.

A member of the Belgian Flemish far-right party Vlaams Belang displays a badge reading "Division of Belgium" in the Belgian Parliament in Brussels on April 22, 2010. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

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.