Belgium will get its seventh king amid questions over whether there will be an eighth, as the widening gulf between the better-off north and the economically backward south strains the country’s unity.
Philippe, 53, will be sworn in at noon today as king after his father, Albert II, 79, abdicates. A swathe of deputies from the richer Flanders province have announced a boycott of the inaugural ceremony in a sign of political tensions in the run-up to elections in 2014.
Belgian politics “isn’t going to be easy to manage,” said Pascal Delwit, a professor at the University of Brussels. “The fact that there’s a new king won’t be a problem in itself, but it’s a vector of uncertainty. He has to see to it that he’s not part of the problem. The best thing he can do politically is to be relatively invisible.”
Belgium’s monarchy engineered the handover on the 182nd anniversary of the inauguration of the first king to replicate the feel-good royal moment that took place in the neighboring Netherlands, when the Dutch queen made way for her son in April.
In Belgium’s case, the purpose was also to give Philippe time to settle in to his new duties before being called on to help shape a new government after the May 2014 elections, a royal prerogative unique to Belgium.
Oxford and Stanford University degrees and training as a fighter and helicopter pilot and parachutist grace the resume of the new king, who will wear the uniform of commander in chief of Belgium’s army as he takes the inaugural oath.
Married with four children, Philippe will gradually accumulate the trappings of the modern bourgeois head of state. Philippe’s silhouette will appear on Belgian postage stamps in November and euro coins in January.
Known as Filip in Dutch and Philippe in German, Belgium’s third official language, the new king had more time to get ready for the not-entirely-ceremonial role than Albert, who was thrust onto the throne by the sudden death of his brother Baudouin in 1993.
Belgium’s economy serves as a microcosm of Europe, with German-style export industries in the Flemish-speaking north and the legacy of coal and steel in the French-speaking south, a region known as Wallonia. Of its 11 million people, 6.4 million are in Flanders and 3.5 million are in the south, with a further 1.1 million in and around Brussels.
The typical Fleming generated 28,900 euros ($37,900) in economic output in 2010, 18 percent above the European Union average, according to the latest EU data. Per capita production in the French-speaking region was 21,500 euros, 12 percent below the EU average.
Flemish subsidies for the poorer south -- estimated at 5.8 billion euros, or 967 euros per Fleming, in a 2005 central bank study -- have bred resentment, an echo of the wealth gap that gnaws at Europe as well.
Albert’s biggest test came after the 2010 election. That vote made the separatist N-VA the strongest party in Flanders and the Socialists the strongest in the French-speaking region, stymying the formation of a government.
Albert oversaw eight attempts to mediate the stalemate, which dragged on for a record 541 days until a six-party coalition took office headed by Socialist Elio Di Rupo, the first native French speaker to run Belgium since the 1970s.
“Albert was and is popular, and did a good job managing the crisis after the 2010 election,” said Vincent Laborderie, a political scientist at the Catholic University of Louvain. One fear is that his son will bring “less finesse, less diplomacy” to the role, he said.
After making the strategic choice to stay outside the federal government, the N-VA has cemented its position as the dominant force in Flanders in opinion polls. N-VA goals are to reduce the monarch to symbolic, ribbon-cutting functions and transfer so much federal power to the regions that Belgium ceases to exist, or at least to matter.
“Don’t assume that you can bring about much in the way of change,” the N-VA’s Theo Francken said in an open letter to Philippe. “In the purely ceremonial role that we envision for you, there will be no decisions for you to make.”
The separatists’ dilemma is that they don’t have enough power to downgrade the monarch on their own. No constitutional amendment can go ahead without the backing of French-speaking parties that see the king as the protector of Belgian unity.
“On the French side, people talk about the end of Belgium,” Laborderie said. “On the Flemish side, it’s not a serious issue.” Flemish nationalists “know it’s not really possible. There’s an overwhelming majority in Flanders that isn’t in favor.”
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