Tongue-tied monarch? Belgium's Philippe faces a linguistically split country

King Albert is set to abdicate in favor of his son on Sunday. But many doubt Philippe's ability to bridge Belgium's Flemish-French divide.

Eric Vidal/Reuters
Belgium's King Albert II and Queen Paola appear on the balcony of the city hall during a visit in Liege Friday. The monarchy is seen as one of the rare things that unify linguistically divided Belgium, and when Prince Philippe becomes its new king on Sunday he will try to prove this is still so.

Christine Docus has what she calls a “Belgian marriage.” She is from the northern, Flemish part of the country and her husband from the southern, French part of Belgium.

As a result, she and her husband have seen the country's divide over the monarchy first hand. Most of her friends from Flanders are critical of the monarchy, while her husband's French-speaking friends are mostly satisfied with the current situation.

Mrs. Docus is more upbeat about the king than her Flemish friends. “King Albert has helped to keep the country together,” she says, standing in the door of her apartment in Leuven, a Flemish city of around 100,000 inhabitants.

But with King Albert II set to abdicate on Sunday to make way for his son Philippe, some in the famously divided country are wondering: Does the monarchy really have a place in modern Belgium? And if it does, is Philippe ready for the role?

Flanders and Wallonia

Belgium is a federal state that consists of three regions with their own legislative powers: Flanders, Wallonia, and the capital region of Brussels. Flanders has a population of about 6.2 million inhabitants, Wallonia has almost 3.5 million, and greater Brussels has over a million. But despite nearly 200 years of shared history, the country has long had a cultural split between – and separatist movements among – Flemish-speaking Belgians in Flanders and French-speakers in Wallonia.

Consensus across Belgium's language barrier is rare. This includes public opinion on the country's monarchy. While 66 percent of the French-speaking Belgians said in a recent poll that they have faith prince Philippe will be a good king, just 49 percent of the Flemish Belgians shared that trust.

To a substantial part of the French-speaking population, the Belgian king is one of the few remaining national symbols, says Bart Maddens, professor at the Centre for Political Research at the University of Leuven. “Many French-speaking Belgians see the king as the cement that holds Belgium together,” he says.

But he adds that “Brussels is probably a stronger cement.” If Belgium were to be divided into an independent Flanders and Wallonia, both entities would want to incorporate the economically and logistically important Belgian capital.

Separatism is much stronger in the economically more successful Flanders than in poorer Wallonia. Fifty-six of the 221 members of the federal parliament are Flemish nationalists that want independence or at least greater autonomy for the regions.

Those that oppose a strong Belgian state are usually no fan of the monarchy, since the Belgian king is a “symbol of the status quo,” according to the Flemish newspaper De Standaard.

That extends to members of the Belgian parliament. On Sunday, Philippe will take the traditional oath to uphold the country's constitution and laws, maintain the country's independence and safeguard its territory. Of the 56 Flemish-nationalist parliamentarians, only 14 are expected to attend this ceremony.

Political powers

Philippe will start his reign on Belgium's National Day, exactly 182 years after Leopold I became the first king of the Belgians, on July 21, 1831. The Belgian state had just become independent from the Netherlands a year earlier, and needed a monarch as a ruler.

However, the Belgian constitution, approved just a few months before Leopold's crowning, limited the king's powers and was one of the most liberal constitutions of the time, says Professor Maddens. The king was given the obligation to sign laws into effect, but no veto power.

In 1990, Albert's predecessor and elder brother, King Baudoin caused a political crisis by refusing to sign a law on abortion. In a constitutionally controversial measure, the government declared Baudoin “unable to rule” and signed the law for him. Two days later, they declared Baudoin able to rule again and he continued his reign.

According to Maddens, a repetition of that “constitutional subterfuge” is unlikely. “If Phillipe decides he can't sign a certain law, that would be the end of the monarchy.” But the king is still required to sign laws, so the problem remains – and there is no political consensus on a solution.

Herman Matthijs at the Ghent University suggests that the Belgian king should have no political influence at all. He points to recent developments in the Netherlands as an example. The Dutch parliament decided last year that the monarch no longer would have a role in coalition talks that follow elections.

“The Dutch were able to swiftly form a government without the queen,” says Professor Matthijs, who wants an end to the king's involvement in the coalition talks.

A Belgian wrinkle

But while Belgian politics features the same diverse left-center-right spectrum that exists in most European democracies, coalition building is complicated by the linguistic communities. Most political colors are represented by both a Flemish and a French party – doubling the number of voices that must be brought to the negotiating table.

The coalition that backs the current federal government of Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo consists of six parties: the Social-Democratic, Liberal, and Christian-Democrat parties from both regions. The talks to form Mr. Di Rupo's government took a record-breaking 541 days.

The role of King Albert in those coalition talks “was not marginal,” says Maddens. In his yearly speech on Belgium's National Day in 2011, already over 400 days after the elections, Albert made no effort to hide his anger and frustration at the political impasse. De Standaard noted that an authoritative king can function as a mediator.

On the other hand, Albert's influence evidently should not be overestimated, otherwise he would have been able to break the impasse much sooner, says Matthijs.

The royal for the job?

Philippe's greatest fear is that Belgium will one day fall apart, historian Mark van den Wijngaert wrote in the book "België en zijn koningen" (Belgium and its kings). “He likes to appear as a builder of bridges between the communities.”

However, it is unlikely that Philippe will have gained enough authority to sway much influence in the next coalition talks, says Maddens – and elections are just ten months away.

And he is still marked by the high-profile doubts of Herman Liebaers, the marshal of his uncle's royal household, who said in 1991 of Philippe's leadership prospects, "He can't do it, can he? A sad case."

But his “wooden and jerky” image might subside in time, says Mrs. Docus from Leuven. She points out that at the beginning of Albert's reign in 1993, many also criticized his nervousness.

“Now everyone is saying what a great king he was. We should give Philippe a chance.”

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