So another Head of State departs (after Egypt’s, I mean), but not in quite as controversial circumstances.
Albert II will abdicate in favor of his son, Philippe, on 21 July, which happens to be the Belgian National Day. This was no surprise to faithful @EuroSavant Twitter-feed followers, since I had flagged in that forum some months ago the rumors that had emerged that this sort of thing would happen.
And yes, that particular tweet above has to begin by specifying “Belgique,” because it’s from the French media, not the Belgian, but I wanted to give props to Le Point for their accompanying story-behind-the-story piece, namely WHY the Belgian King is abdicating.
For this is unprecedent, it’s the first time a King of Belgium has voluntary stepped down. (Not that Belgian monarchs go back that far in history – only back to, yes, 21 July 1831 – and indeed one had to vacate the throne involuntarily for misbehaving during World War II.) But it’s not so novel a thing to do just north over the border in the Netherlands, as the last three monarchs (all queens) have in fact relinquished their crowns prior to their deaths, the latest famously being Queen Beatrix just this past April 30, which indeed was the Netherlands’ National Day, Queen’s Day.
There is surely something to be said for the notion of avoiding that inevitable-but-awkward period of senescence during which the physical and mental abilities of a “to the bitter end” type of monarch become degraded but no one has the nerve to come forth and . . . uh . . . well, let’s say “tell the emperor he has no clothes,” if you get what I mean. (A hearty “Hear hear!” resounds from Clarence House, the Prince of Wales’ official residence – not that I intend any commentary on how Queen Elizabeth II is getting along.) There is also much to be said for the sheer concept of a 79-year-old feeling too worn-down and tired to muster much enthusiasm for the responsibilities anymore.
So the strong temptation therefore has to be that King Albert II decided simply to follow that same Dutch example. Not so, though, as that Le Point piece by their Brussels correspondent, Alain Franco, makes clear. In the first place, there is a very tricky question of timing, caused by the modern-day inevitability of a Belgian national election leading to a political crisis as the government is formed afterwards. You see, the Flemings have their own Dutch-speaking parties and the Walloons have their own French-speaking, and any resulting government has to be constructed in an evenly-balanced way between them.
This devilishly tricky problem already earned Belgium in 2011 an entry in the Guiness Book of World Records for “longest period without a formal government,” and it’s clear that episode – and future ones – would become even longer-to-impossible without the wise, judicious and impartial presence of the King. As Franco describes in his piece, it’s clear that Albert II calculated that the last crisis is far behind, done and dusted, while the next one is scheduled for when the next national elections happen in May of next year. So new King Philippe will at least have around 10 months to learn the ropes before he is called into action then.
I hear you: “Wait! Ten months is not enough!” And you’re right. But the poor guy is 79 years old! Besides, there is another burning reason for him to get out, also treated in the Le Point article. It seems Albert II was a bit of a rake in his younger years – he was the second son, so he never expected he would actually become King. And now we have Delphine Boël, a 45-year-old Belgian artist who is coming forward claiming to be Albert’s daughter from a long affair he carried on back in the Swinging Sixties, demanding a DNA test to prove her claim. (You can play the “can-you-see-a-resemblance” game here.)
Far better to confront this sort of scandal off the throne than upon it. So this lends another perspective to Albert’s televised announcement yesterday evening to the Belgians – not that he mentioned anything of the sort in his address, of course, and many national publications also found it awkward to bring the subject up. The French need not be as fastidious. Meanwhile, Prince Philippe can start studying Coalition Government-Forming 101.