“This is not the ‘transitional king’ that was presented to us twenty years ago”

What will we retain from King Albert II’s reign? We asked Vincent Dujardin, Professor of history at UCL.

INTERVIEW

What mark will Albert II leave in the history books?

We can only fully answer that question once the official archives are opened. What can be said is that Albert was presented as a transitional monarch, but never was. He reigned three times longer than his father, Leopold III. Overall, Albert’s reign was regularly praised by the press and the political world. This was positive for a king who, in 1993, left some ministers wondering how he could succeed his brother King Baudouin’s 43 years on the throne. In the end, the one who was more than once referred to as a “lightweight” ended his reign twenty years later as one of the most acclaimed rulers in the history of the country.

We get the feeling that Albert ascended the throne out of a sense of duty. He later acquired a taste for his role.

In 1992, Albert and his brother sealed an agreement that in the case of King Baudouin’s premature death, Albert would succeed him. That is how in 1993, when the prime minister Jean-Luc Dehaene asked him to respect the constitutional order, he replied straightaway that he would. This does not mean that he didn’t want to become King. In addition, I share your sentiment. It was not until he stepped into his role that he became engaged in it. He didn’t break with his brother’s goals, but did change the method. He did not attempt to copy Baudouin. He remained true to himself and he acted using his own qualities.

The last few years of his rule became more difficult, politically as well as personally. What was his role in the 541 days of political crisis following the 2010 elections?

The King is not responsible for the country’s institutional events. However, as Sean Stengers articulated so well at the end of his book on royal roles, he is one of the pieces on the chessboard. The government’s constitution assigns him the role of “facilitator.” It’s useful and must be safeguarded if we want to preserve a unified Belgium. He alone did not pull the country out of the crisis, but he certainly played an important and positive role. He was not committed to this kind of political volunteerism earlier in his reign.

It’s only since 2007 that we truly saw the image of a good-natured king, with a formidable sense of humor, who could turn to ice when he was opposed politically. He went so far as to transform into the Head of State who issued solemn warnings.

Aside from political backlash, there were also some controversies surrounding his sister in law, Queen Fabiola, and the recognition of his illegitimate daughter. Could these have played a role in his decision to shorten his reign?

I doubt it. The rumors of his abdication are fairly old. The July 21, 2013 date has been circulating for at least one year.

The political class has not always found the prospect of Philippe to be reassuring.

He’s the best-trained prince in the history of our country. He’s 53 years old, six months younger than Albert II in 1993 and five years older than Leopold III when he decided to retire in 1950. Change always brings up many questions, just like in 1993 following King Baudouin’s very long reign. His demise stirred so much popular emotion that the French press wrote, “The King is dead, Belgium is dead!” The same challenges were present. Belgium’s official character as the federated Belgian state had just been enacted. In April, 40,000 people demonstrated against separatism. What will happen now? We’ll see in five years, same day, same time.

For the time being, Prince Philippe benefits from a good climate. Several surveys have found that the northern part of the country is more eager than the southern part to see the passing of the torch. For now, the most important thing for the new king is to keep his head about him, just as it was for his father in 1993. A look backward to 1994 in that regard sees Albert invoking amnesty while speaking of the necessity of pardon and reconciliation. He hummed the Vlaamse Leeuw, the Flemish anthem, on July 11, 1994 the Flemish regional holiday: two conciliatory gestures in one toward Flanders.

This is the second time there are two living kings. The first time was in the 50’s. Some accused Leopold III of having too much influence on Baudouin, even so far as pulling the strings in the background.

This situation is completely different. Baudouin was 19 years old at the time. He had no training, was familiar with neither the political class nor the country that he had left when he was ten in 1940. At the age of 53, Philippe will be a second head of state, and the oldest to ascend the throne of Belgium after his father (59 years old).

He has the most complete training possible. This does not mean that his father won’t give him some pointers when his son asks for them. The King’s message today is that he can no longer be totally committed. Belgium needs a full time king. His son is now the best person to fulfill the role of Head of State.

Interview by
WILLIAM BOURTON

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