Belgium's government collapses
Belgium's government collapsed on Monday after the country's king accepted the premier's resignation, threatening divisive elections in the run-up to taking over the European Union's chair.
King Albert II accepted prime minister Yves Leterme's offer to throw in the towel -- a third such desperate decision by the 49-year-old -- after strained negotiations between Dutch- and French-speaking parts broke down.
"The king has accepted the resignation of the government," said a short statement, following a failed bid to resolve longstanding animosity between the different linguistic members of Belgium's fragile coalition.
The announcement came after deputy premier and finance minister Didier Reynders, tasked on Saturday with trying to patch up increasingly heated differences, asked to be relieved of his royal rescue mission.
Serial quitter Leterme reached the end of his tether on Thursday, but the king reserved judgment in a desperate effort to bring feuding parties back into coalition following a walk-out by Flemish hardliners.
The statement from the palace said that the king had asked the government to manage "outstanding affairs", which raises the prospect of an election in the two months leading up to Belgium assuming the EU's rotating presidency.
The dissolution of the federal parliament would, under the Belgian constitution, lead to elections within 40 days, suggesting they could take place in the first half of June -- with the EU role starting on July 1.
The alternative is for the king to try to find another compromise negotiator who might be able to head off a damaging vote set for the parliament on Thursday, which could see refuseniks clip voting rights for French speakers in Flemish suburbs of the capital Brussels
Leterme's government only lasted five months after predecessor Herman Van Rompuy left to take up the full-time EU presidency.
The latest crisis has been termed by commentators as worse than previous governmental collapses in 2007 and 2008.
Earlier on Monday, Reynders had said that "all the elements were in place" after a whistle-stop weekend tour of the five coalition partners and two smaller green parties.
However, Belgian media reported that liberal and Christian-Democrat Flemish parties were not minded to return to the negotiating table before Thursday.
The impasse has led Belgian newspapers to predict the break-up of the country -- with headlines such as 'Bye-Bye Belgium' -- as the more prosperous Dutch-speaking Flanders already enjoys substantial autonomy.
Their poorer francophone neighbours argue that the existing devolved set up with regional parliaments was sufficient.
The country is proud of Brussels' status as 'the capital of Europe' housing as it does the headquarters of the EU's main institutions.
Many were keen to avoid a prolonged political crisis, and embarrassment as Belgium prepares to take the EU reins.
© 2010 AFP