updated 7/15/2008 1:23:11 PM ET 2008-07-15T17:23:11

Belgium's government collapsed Tuesday, unable to resolve an enduring divide over more self-rule for the country's Dutch and French-speakers. The gap was so wide the premier suggested the end of Belgium as a country was looming.

King Albert II immediately began political discussions with lawmakers to try to resolve the situation, talks expected to take several days. He did not formally accept the resignation of government offered by Premier Yves Leterme late Monday, so Leterme's government stays on in a caretaker capacity for now.

In an unusual declaration, the premier said Belgium's constitutional crisis stems from the fact that "consensus politics" across Belgium's widening linguistic divide no longer works.

"The federal consensus-model has reached its limits," Leterme said.

Leterme failed to get his cabinet — an unwieldy alliance of Christian Democrats, Liberals, Socialists and nationalist hard-liners from both language camps that took office March 20 — to agree on a future together by devolving more federal powers to the Dutch-speaking Flanders and Francophone Wallonia.

Francophone parties expressed surprise that Leterme threw in the towel. Vice-premier Didier Reynders urged him to stay on, saying the government must go ahead with its social and economic program. Elio di Rupo, leader of the Francophone Socialists, said the constitutional reform negotiations were held in a "constructive, positive climate."

But mainstream Flemish parties — including Leterme's own Christian Democrats — accused French-speaking parties of not negotiating in good faith.

Granting Belgium's Dutch and French-speaking communities more self-rule began, gradually, in the 1970s, in such areas as culture, youth affairs and sports. Since then education, housing, trade, tourism, agriculture and other areas were shifted from the federal government and Flanders, Wallonia and bilingual Brussels were given regional governments and parliaments.

Now Francophone parties accuse Dutch-speakers of trying to separate themselves completely from French-speaking Wallonia, where the 15 percent unemployment rate is triple that of Dutch-speaking Flanders.

Flemish parties want their more prosperous, Dutch-speaking northern half of the country to be more autonomous by shifting corporate and other taxes, some social security measures, transport, health, labor and justice matters to the language regions.

Mainstream Flemish politicians say there is room for more regional autonomy in one country but hardline nationalist parties in Flanders advocate the breakup of Belgium.

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