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Belgian government topples, raising specter of Greek-style economic collapse

Belgium tumbled into a new political crisis today as tensions between the country’s Dutch- and French-speaking politicians once again brought down the national government.

Decades of squabbling between the two main linguistic groups has regularly forced the collapse of governments and the administration of Prime Minister Yves Leterme became the latest to fall after his Flemish liberal coalition partners pulled out of the cabinet.

The crisis comes at a difficult time as the country struggles to bring the economy in line despite a bludgeoning budget deficit and mounting debt. One politician warned that a prolonged political crisis could push Belgium toward a Greece-style economic collapse.

Belgium’s instability could also impact the running of the European Union, since Belgium is scheduled to take over the bloc’s rotating presidency on July 1.

In an immediate impact, the crisis seemed likely to postpone a vote in parliament that would have introduced Europe’s first ban on the wearing of the burqa and other face-covering clothes in public.

Leterme’s resignation will force new elections or a bout of desperate horse-trading to form a new coalition among the fractious Flemish and francophone politicians. When he was first elected in 2007, Leterme took nine months to cobble together a coalition government.

The current tension is focused on demands by Dutch-speaking politicians for the break up of an electoral district that allows minority French-speakers to vote for their own parties in a number of suburban towns around Brussels.

Under Belgium’s fiendishly complicated constitution, Brussels is bilingual. The surrounding suburbs are officially only Dutch-speaking, but a series of compromises dating back to the 1960s allows some voting and linguistic rights for the many French speakers who live there.

The Dutch-speaking Flemish claim those arrangements encourage francophone encroachment on their territory and want them scrapped; French speakers accuse their neighbors of undermining their democratic rights.

The issue runs deeper, with voters in the Dutch-speaking north increasingly voting for parties that seek the break up of Belgium and independence for their region, Flanders. In the last elections to the regional parliament over one-in-three Flemings voted for separatist parties.

In response, mainstream politicians have hardened their tone on linguistic issues, with the previously moderate Open Flemish Liberal and Democratic Party pulling out of the national government in protest at the failure of the latest batch of negotiations to bring about the break up of the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde electoral district.

In an appeal for politicians not to undermine the county’s stability, veteran Flemish politician Marc Eyskens compared the situation to ethnic tensions in Bosnia. However with the general public mostly baffled, exasperated, or apathetic, there’s every sign that Belgium’s linguistic battles will remain limited to bickering among the political classes rather than spilling over into the streets.