International news wires are erupting with reports that Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme has tendered his resignation to King Albert II. The resignation, over Leterme's failure to resolve a complex political dispute between the country's Dutch-speaking North and French-speaking South, threatens to deadlock the government and create a national crisis. Investors, predicting catastrophe, have already downgraded Belgian sovereign bonds. But these headlines should look familiar. On July 15, 2008, Belgian Prime Minister Leterme tendered his resignation over his failure to resolve a complex political dispute between the country's Dutch-speaking North and French-speaking South. King Albert II rejected Leterme's resignation and the government limped forward. So why did Leterme try to resign at all, and why is he trying again?
Ever since the 1830 revolution, when two provinces in the Netherlands broke away to form the new state of Belgium, the young country has struggled with identity crisis. Neither the French-speaking southern province of Wallonia nor the Dutch-speaking northern province of Flanders has clear dominance. In Western Europe, a part of the world where nationalism drives political discourse and language serves as the demarcation of national identity, Belgium is truly a house divided. For nearly two centuries, ethno-cultural and linguistic conflict has consumed Belgian politics in cycles. It typically begins with a local dispute, such as the allocation of Parliamentary seats or an influx of French speakers settling in a traditionally Dutch suburb. Such conflicts might appear petty or inconsequential to an outsider, but the argument is never really about Parliamentary votes or neighborhood distribution. What's really at stake is an unresolved debate about Belgian identity: Is it Dutch first and French second? Is it the other way around? Or is there a genuinely composite Belgian identity that only needs strengthening?