Belgium to hold crisis talks after PM offers to quit
Brussels: Belgium's king, mulling his prime minister's offer to quit, on Saturday gave feuding francophone and Flemish parties a few more days to avert a political crisis as the nation prepares to assume the EU helm.
King Albert II is trying to avoid the need for snap elections after premier Yves Leterme threw in the towel on Thursday, little more than two months before Belgium assumes the rotating EU presidency.
Leterme's decision became inevitable after the Open VLD Flemish liberals walked out of his five-party coalition government as the country's linguistic faultline threatens to split the country in two.
The king asked Belgian Finance Minister Didier Reynders to seek urgent talks between the parties representing the country's main communities, the richer Dutch-speaking northern region of Flanders and their poorer francophone neighbours in Wallonia to the south.
He asked Reynders "to insure, as soon as possible that the conditions are there for rapidly resuming negotiations on these institutional problems," and Reynders has accepted, the royal palace said in a statement.
The focal point in those talks would be the rights of francophone residents of Flemish suburbs of Brussels.
Open VLD leader Alexander De Croo pulled his party out of the coalition on Thursday frustrated by the lack of progress on the issue which is a flashpoint for the nation's broader inter-communal problems.
All parties are keen to avoid a prolonged political crisis, and embarrassment as Belgium prepares to take over the EU reins in July.
The country is proud of Brussels' status as 'the capital of Europe' housing as it does the headquarters of the EU's main institutions.
To preside over pan-European talks while enduring a political crisis at home is unthinkable to most politicians and commentators.
However, the crisis runs much deeper than the rights of a French-speaking minority in Dutch-speaking towns, with some asking whether Belgium can continue to exist in its present form.
De Croo, the man who provoked the crisis, was unrepentant. In interviews in the Belgian press Saturday he said "the ball is now in the francophone court."
Dutch speakers make up 60 percent of the Belgian population.
Only the capital Brussels is officially bilingual.
The more prosperous Dutch-speaking Flanders is seeking greater autonomy, while their poorer francophone neighbours argue that devolution -- there are already regional parliaments -- have gone far enough.
Some Walloon politicians fear the latest crisis is part of a wider Flemish strategy to split up Belgium.
Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende phoned Leterme on Friday to discuss the worrying situation.
EU president Herman Van Rompuy, the man whom Leterme succeeded as Belgian PM just five months ago, expressed the hope that "good sense with prevail" and that he will soon be able to work with a "reinvigorated, reinstalled" Belgian government.
Last week was the third time Leterme has offered to quit the premiership[ since Belgium's last general election in 2007.
The king has already accepted his offer on one occasion during a period of political turmoil when only Van Rompuy managed to keep the lid on the intercommunal tensions, before his sudden move to the EU hot seat.