Albert II: the king who struggled to keep Belgium together Author: Colin Clapson

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Wed 03/07/2013 - 16:01 Colin Clapson King Albert is Belgium's sixth monarch. He became king in 1993 following the death of his brother King Boudewijn, who died suddenly on 31 July 1993. Albert was next in line, but many people had not expected him to become king. The expectation was that Boudewijn would be succeeded by his nephew Prince Filip, who had been pushed forward as the 'heir presumptive'.

The marriage of King Boudewijn and Queen Fabiola had remained without issue for many years and the king had taken the young Filip under his wings. King Boudewijn's early death meant that Prince Filip was still largely inexperienced and a decision was taken to respect to the letter the line of succession.

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On 9 August 1993 King Albert swears his oath of allegiance to the Belgian Constitution in front of Belgian lawmakers.

Albert seems tense during the ceremony in the Belgian Parliament. The people of Belgium see how his hand shakes violently and for many this can only be an ill omen. The ceremony is interrupted by the libertarian lawmaker Jean-Pierre Van Rossem, who, from the public gallery, shouts "Long Live the Republic" in Dutch and French and "Long Live Lahaut", a reference to the Belgian Communist leader, who was assassinated after shouting "Vive la République" during King Boudewijn's swearing in ceremony.

Assembled lawmakers respond by shouting "Vive le roi" (Long Live the King in French).

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King Boudewijn's death triggered an unprecedented outpouring of grief, but the country soon warmed to King Albert, who signalled a sea change in the mood music emanating from the royal palace. If some had thought King Boudewijn excessively pious, the new king appeared distinctly jovial, chatty, happy and always ready to crack a joke.

The childless Boudewijn, who had wedded the devoutly Roman Catholic Spanish noblewoman Fabiola de Mora y Aragon, had sought consolation in religion. King Albert, who had earned his spurs heading Belgian trade missions abroad, was clearly more a man of the world.

A member of the Privy Council is said to have put it this way: "He's mischievous, sober and a little middle class. He's the first member of the royal house of Saxe-Cobourg-Gotha not to display any Prussian influences. You could say that he is our first Belgian king."

King Albert, who was initially seen as an interim figure, served his country for over two decades until his eldest son, Prince Filip, was ready.

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In 1996, when King Albert had only been on the throne for three years, the Dutroux child sex scandal shakes Belgium to its very foundations. The scandal also makes an impact on Belgium's royals. In order to show the royal family's solidarity the parents of many of Belgium's murdered and missing children are invited to the royal palace.

King Albert also stages a round table conference at the royal palace. Delegates are invited to discuss the abuse and disappearance of children. King Albert is said to phone the Justice Minister each and every day to find out how the investigation is proceeding.

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The greatest challenge that King Albert faced during his reign was keeping Belgium together. Political tension between the majority Flemish community and the minority Francophone community grew steadily throughout the past two decades. In 1993, the year in which Albert became king, parliament approved the St Michael's Accords turning Belgium into a federal state. In 2001 Belgium's regions were given greater powers as a result of the Lambermont and Lombard Accords.

At the same time the distance between Flemings and Francophones seemed to grow ever wider. It clearly starts to get on the king's nerves and in his New Year's address in 2006 King Albert sharply attacks "separatism that is not of this time and that signifies a catastrophe for the country". The king comes under heavy fire from the Flemish nationalists. N-VA leader Bart De Wever wonders aloud "On which planet is the king living?" He believes that the monarch has overstepped a line by making this political statement.

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Matters seem to go from bad to worse after the 2007 general election. Belgium seems in need of new state reforms, but Yves Leterme, who had been asked to form a government, twice fails to bring Flemish and Francophone parties together.

King Albert uses high-tech institutional technology to try and find a way out of the crisis. A raft of politicians is asked to inform, reconnoiter, form, reconcile, accompany and mediate, but little headway is made. In quick succession Belgium is governed by the Verhofstadt III Government, by Yves Leterme's first administration that falls as a result of the collapse of Fortis Bank, the Van Rompuy Government and Mr Leterme's second administration. Finally, the Flemish liberals pull the plug on this government and Belgium faces fresh elections.

The Francophone socialists and the Flemish nationalists win these elections convincingly. Dissolving Belgium is a key plank of the N-VA's programme, but King Albert has no choice but to appoint Bart De Wever to inform him about the political situation.

Countless politicians trek to and from Laken Castle as one crucial week lapses into another crucial week. It seems like nobody can resolve the deadlock. Several sources say that the political crisis is weighing hard on the monarch's shoulders. His mental state is described as 'enormously tired'.

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It is in these days that the scale of the king's weight on the political process also grows. By his choice of mediator the king is clearly able to influence events.

In his National Day address in 2011 the king does not hide his disappointment. With clenched fists he speaks of his deep concern and quotes the words of the English constitutional expert Walter Bagehot who ascribed to the monarch the right to warn.

In Flemish nationalist circles King Albert is once again portrayed as a relic. Consensus grows on the need to limit the monarch's powers.

The monies that the royal family receives in grants and from the civil list also attract criticism. A foundation set up by the Dowager Queen Fabiola to prevent her Spanish heirs from paying inheritance tax brings the matter to the fore and results in open criticism of the royal family by the Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo.

Shortly afterwards the government decides to cut the dowager queen's grant as well as that of other members of the royal family

These matters too weigh on the king who is approaching his eightieth year. Political sources speak of the king looking forward to his 'retirement'. Government politicians, however, are keen to see him stay on and guide Belgium through the political process that will follow the 2014 elections for both the federal and devolved parliaments. There are many who fear that Prince Filip is still not ready to play his role in the government formation process in 2014.

An abdication north of the border in the Netherlands is very close to home. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands abdicates in favour of her son Willem-Alexander. She is nearly five years younger than our monarch.

In recent days efforts by the king's illegitimate daughter Delphine Boël to obtain recognition in the courts must also have strained the monarch.

In August it will be exactly two decades ago. A king's work may never be over, but by King Albert's decision to abdicate he has ensured that a different monarch will soon reign over us. King Albert's greatest concern has always been to keep Belgium together. Only history will tell whether his efforts have met with permanent success.