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EU appointment leaves Belgium in the lurch

Belgium's prime minister is leaving to become president of the European Union and in all probability leaving his country headed for a mess.

Herman van Rompuy took over as premier 11 months ago as a consensus candidate after the latest in a string of political crises left the country rudderless.

His ability to keep the kingdom's squabbling French- and Dutch-speakers from pushing each other into a full-scale political breakdown was a major factor in the other EU leaders picking the relatively unknown politician to be their first full-time president.

But his move up Brussels' Rue de la Loi ("Law Street") to EU headquarters on Jan. 1 will create a new power vacuum in Belgium.

As political maneuvering begins to find a replacement, two names have immediately emerged: Foreign Minister Yves Leterme, who spent an ill-starred few months as premier before being forced out over a banking scandal to be replaced by van Rompuy, and Finance Minister Didier Reynders, who narrowly survived in the job after criticism over his handling of the same bank takeover.

Reynders would be the first prime minister in decades from the country's French-speaking minority. Leterme is a Dutch-speaker who did much to alienate the Francophones during his spell in charge.

Whoever gets the job will have to deal with the poisonous issue of voting and language rights for French-speakers living in Flemish suburbs or Brussels — an issue that frequently paralyses governments here.

Van Rompuy meanwhile promised to offer all the advice they need from his grand new office in the EU headquarters.