|Flemish Christian Democrat party President Wouter Beke arrives for a meeting with leaders in Brussels [Reuters]
A record 15 months after elections were held, eight Flemish-speaking and Francophone parties have reached a major breakthrough in the world's longest negotiations to form a new governing coalition.
The eight parties announced that they had reached a deal on the breakup of an electoral district in and around bilingual Brussels - an issue that had vexed politicians for almost half a century and was at the heart of the long standoff between the linguistic groups as they sought to reform the constitution.
The parties said in a joint statement on Thursday that negotiations on other issues, such as economic and social policy, would continue.
"Our work is far from over, and we still need a lot of negotiations," said the statement.
After a government stalemate already considered by far a world record, news of the breakthrough was lauded by many as fundamental.
"It is a historic breakthrough. It is extremely important and positive," Yves Leterme, the caretaker prime minister, said.
"We have crossed a difficult bridge," Joelle Milquet, head of the Francophone cdH party, said.
Over the past months, politicians have increasingly worried about the pressure of financial markets doubtful about the long-term future of the country.
As acting premier, Leterme has been making as many social and economic decisions as his mandate allowed.
But negotiators realised drastic action had to be taken, especially after Leterme announced early this week he would leave his post by the end of the year and move to the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
The June 13, 2010, elections brought the Dutch-speaking separatist N-VA party to the fore, and at first it was included in the protracted negotiations.
But when no compromise could be found, the traditional parties that have dominated Belgian politics for years decided to try it on their own in July.
By that time it had swept past the year-mark, and past war-torn Iraq and Cambodia, for the unofficial title as longest government negotiations.
The insistence on more self-rule in northern Belgium for its six million Dutch-speaking Flemings was always central to negotiations.
The parties representing the six million Francophones living in southern Wallonia and Brussels sought to maintain an institutional status quo.
Negotiators stress, however, that many hurdles still need to be cleared until a new government can take office.
"Every party can still endanger everything," Wouter Beke, head of the Dutch-speaking Christian Democrats, said.
Even so, the solution for the electoral district in and around the capital was a huge step.
A linguistic border slices Belgium into northern, Dutch-speaking Flanders and southern, Francophone Wallonia.
Central bilingual Brussels, previously an electoral district around the capital that nearly straddled that border, allowed Francophone Brussels politicians to run in a sliver of Flanders.
Dutch-speaking parties always argued this undermined their authority in the area.
Under the new agreement, the capital district will be largely split along linguistic lines.