Mon, Jul 22, 2013 - Page 6 News List

Divided Belgium ushers in new king

AFP, BRUSSELS

Former King Albert II of Belgium, center, and Queen Mathilde, right, yesterday applaud next to former Queen Paola during the coronation of King Philippe at the Belgian Parliament in Brussels.

Photo: Reuters

King Philippe ascended the throne of Belgium as its seventh king yesterday amid National Day celebrations marked by hopes the fragile nation can remain united.

“I swear to abide by the constitution and the laws of the Belgian people,” Philippe, 53, and dressed in full military uniform, said in the country’s three languages — French, Flemish and German.

“I am aware of the responsibilities weighing on my shoulders,” he added, after the abdication of his father, former King Albert II, after 20 years at the helm of the linguistically-split country at the heart of Europe.

Albert, 79, abdicated in favor of his eldest son at a solemn ceremony in the royal palace’s chandelier-laden throne room after saying he felt too old and too fragile to continue to reign.

In his last speech, Albert reiterated a call to the country’s leaders “to work tirelessly in favor of Belgium’s cohesion.”

His voice breaking with emotion, Albert turned to his wife of 54 years, former Queen Paola, to say: “As for the queen who constantly supported me in my task I would simply like to tell her ‘thank you.’”

Under sunny skies and a light summer breeze, flags fluttered across Brussels as the day of pageantry began with a thanksgiving Mass while crowds lined outside shouted: “Long live the king.”

“It is a new page for the monarchy,” said Maximilien De Wouters, a student draped in the national flag.

However, worries persist that the shy and often awkward Philippe may lack the political skills of his father to maintain unity in a nation deeply divided between its Flemish and French-speaking halves.

Queen Mathilde, an outgoing 40-year-old who will be Belgium’s first homegrown queen, is seen as his best asset in the couple’s campaign to win the hearts of their 11.5 million people.

The monarchy is often viewed as a rare symbol of Belgium’s unity — along with its iconic fries and the national soccer team.

However, while the French-speakers of the south remain largely royalist, Flemish-speaking Flanders, home to 60 percent of the population, has cooled. There, the powerful separatist N-VA Party favors a republic, or at least a royal as figurehead only.

In the past decades, severe tensions across the linguistic divide in a country that hosts key international institutions such as the EU and NATO, have seen it morph progressively into a federal state that devolves increasing powers to its language-based regions.

During his two decades at the helm, Albert II helped steer the country through several crises and avoid break-up. He played a key role to end its longest political crisis in 2010-2011 when the country went through a record-breaking 541 days without a government.

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