Belgium's feuding politicians on Thursday hailed a first breakthrough in marathon negotiations, removing a key hurdle in a crisis that has left the country without a government for a world-record 459 days.
French-speaking Socialist leader Elio Di Rupo, the mediator in the talks and possible future prime minister, announced that the eight Flemish and Francophone parties took a "first decisive step" out of the crisis.
"The eight parties have together succeeded in overcoming the obstacles which have created difficulties these last few days," the politicians said in a joint statement after hours of intense negotiations.
The negotiators reached a compromise on the sensitive issue of Brussels and its suburbs, the only bilingual electoral district in the country and the source of deep divisions between Flemish and French-speaking politicians.
The talks had appeared near collapse just a few hours earlier, when Di Rupo warned that they were heading towards another breakdown.
The breakthrough on the Brussels electoral district was hailed by Dutch- and French-speaking newspapers alike as "historic".
While the statement did not provide details, Flemish parties have sought to end special voting rights of Francophones in suburbs located within Flanders.
But politicians still face tough negotiations, notably on devolving more power to the regions -- a key demand in Dutch-speaking Flanders, which is wealthier and more populated than its southern Francophone neighbour Wallonia.
The negotiators have also excluded the largest party in Flanders, the separatist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA).
"Even if the work is far from being finished and numerous debates have to be have to be worked out, the steps taken today ... constitute an important step," the eight parties said in the statement.
Resolving the crisis is a matter of urgency for Belgium, a member of the debt-stricken eurozone. Ratings agencies have warned that Belgium's credit score could be downgraded if it remains without a government for too long.
The country's political problems intensified late Tuesday when caretaker premier Yves Leterme announced he would step down to run for a senior job at the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
In response, King Albert II, who has played a lead role in 15 months of efforts to strike a deal between Belgium's two feuding language communities, cut short his vacation in southern France and headed home.
Albert II warned in July that the continuing deadlock threatened both its economic future and Europe as a whole.
The country was left in the hands of a caretaker cabinet after June 10, 2010 elections failed to produce a workable governing coalition.
Divisions between northern Dutch-speaking separatists and southern French-speakers proved insurmountable.
The long impasse has underlined the widening gulf between the wealthier 6.2 million people of Flanders and the 4.5 million French-speakers of struggling Wallonia.