BRUSSELS - Belgium's government collapsed on Monday amid a breakdown between Dutch and French-speaking parts, hurtling the country towards elections that cast a doubt over its future as a unified state.
Two months from Belgium taking over the EU's chair, the palace announced that King Albert II had accepted prime minister Yves Leterme's offer to quit after negotiations between Flemish and Walloon parts disintegrated.
"The king has accepted the resignation of the government," said a short statement, following a failed mission by deputy premier and finance minister Didier Reynders to patch up Belgium's fragile coalition.
Reynders, who had spent three days failing to broker reconciliation on the king's behalf, told national television that the likelihood of a general election posed a real danger for his country's future unity.
"I am afraid that this is a choice which could lead the country towards a very serious crisis," he said of the drift towards snap polls, citing tension over precisely what the Flemish north and Walloon south "want to do together."
Leterme, a 49-year-old conservative dubbed 'serial quitter' after twice previously giving up the ghost, reached the end of his tether on Thursday, but the king reserved judgment in a desperate effort to get the coalition back round the table following a walk-out by Flemish hardliners.
The statement from the palace said that the king had simply asked the government to manage "outstanding affairs", which raises the prospect of an election across the country's three federal regions — Flanders, Wallonia and the capital region of Brussels, which also houses the European Union's headquarters.
According to a statement from Leterme's office, the departing premier said "it was impossible to reach a deal" between the rival linguistic political formations that lie behind increasing instability in Belgian politics.
Reynders said it had become apparent to Leterme that a "loss of confidence" between the different parties had made it impossible to pursue negotiations.
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 Flemish lawmakers use their majority to clip voting rights for French speakers in Flemish suburbs of 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 government 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 Walloon 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,' and many were keen to avoid a prolonged political crisis, and embarrassment as Belgium prepares to take the EU reins.