The abdication of Albert II: how it happened

 

It was back on March 2, 2012 that Le Soir first raised the possibility of Albert II abdicating in the summer of 2013. At the time, we mentioned the potential date of July 21. Contrary to what many have said or written over the past year, this scenario was not a simple rumor, or the ravings of a single source looking to make a name for himself, or the result of a cunning scheme from this or that nationalist, or the obsession of a newspaper inventing false scoops in order to boost sales, or an unrelenting campaign against the king.

The information we received, which was duly cross-checked with numerous credible sources close to the Palace, was gradually confirmed as the months went by, continuing into this year. It is worthwhile noting that, unlike other media outlets, Le Soir has never written that the king was or was not going to abdicate, nor what he should or should not do. We simply carried out our work as journalists and made public a scenario that was already being put together behind closed doors at the Palace. We were well aware, of course, that any seriously considered plan still might not materialize on the scheduled date if circumstances dictated otherwise, especially after it was uncovered by the press.

 

The timeline below is, according to our sources, how this abdication came about.

 

March 2012. Le Soir revealed the news, but the king had already informed his family and friends of his desire to step down. He planned on doing it in the middle of the following year. To this end, he began to make it clear to a handful of select political leaders that he did not see himself remaining on the throne for the rest of his days, without actually mentioning an exact date. He was heard to say “I’m tired”, “I feel like I’ve done my bit”, “I’d like to have time for other things”, and “It’s time for a younger person to come in”. Certain diplomats also got wind of the royal plan.

 

From the moment we published our story, we were met with a collective denial. Almost all political leaders were quick to state that the information was false and that there was no question of an abdication. This was understandable, of course, as they were not – some rare exceptions aside – aware of what was happening.

 

In the weeks and months that followed, a majority of politicians, even including those at the highest levels of power, declared that they did not want Albert II to step aside early and would rather see him remain in place until after the elections in May 2014, and so until after the formation of the next government. Some even went as far as to repeat the mantra, “In Belgium, the king dies on the throne.”

 

The line of argument was always the same: “Albert II must remain king for the stability of the country”, “it’s important that he’s there for the formation of the government after the 2014 elections, given his experience in the area”, “the government already has enough to do without dealing with this issue”, and, above all, “we can’t provide the N-VA with such a gift before the elections”. This last point is related to the belief that the New Flemish Alliance could take advantage of the slightest error by Philippe I – only moderately popular in Flanders – in order to attack the monarchy and the country.

 

Mid-April 2013. The story then began to grow legs. Fellow members of the media announced that the king had been to see the prime minister on two occasions, and that the deputy prime ministers had been called to the Palace, followed by the party presidents. The supposed objective: making them all aware of the abdication. This was not the case.

 

Were signals sent out by Albert II at this point? In an indirect way, perhaps, but it was nothing more than that.

 

What the king did at the time was to confide to a member of his close inner circle that he had no intention of changing his mind, sticking with his wish to step down. This was a man who had, up to that point, never engaged in any form of power struggle with the country’s political establishment.

 

In April, a new timetable was floated by some. There was now talk of a two-pronged plan, involving an abdication announcement on Belgium’s national day on July 21 and an actual abdication later in the year, with some referring to November 15, the King’s Feast.

 

Mid-May. On May 13 – from what we were able to verify – the prime minister, in an audience with the king, learned of Albert II’s wish to abdicate and was asked to look into the question. The date of July 21 was suggested.

 

Elio Di Rupo asked the king for some time to think over the issue. Apparently, he did not disclose the information to anyone.

 

The day before his meeting with the prime minister, the king told his son Philippe that he planned to tell Di Rupo of his intention to abdicate. The potential successor (who was due to leave on a trade mission to California on June 2) would have realized at that point that his time was near.

 

Like the majority of political leaders, Di Rupo was not overly keen on the idea of Albert II departing the throne prior to May 2014. But faced with a 79-year-old king who had already made up his mind, there was little he could do. “He knows that it would be difficult to force a man with his mind set on quitting to stay,” a source told us.

 

May 27 At this point, a sign was given by Paul Magnette, president of the Socialist Party. During a special program on RTBF celebrating the king’s 20 years on the throne, he, along with all the other presidents of French-speaking parties, was asked about a possible abdication. Magnette responded with an answer that was neither categorical nor firm, contrary to what most observers were expecting (his Socialist colleague and member of the government, Laurette Onkelinx, had expressed her opposition to the idea of the king retiring on several occasions): “The timing of the succession is a decision that rests with the king,” he said steadily. “It is up to him to decide when it happens.”

 

June 5. While Philippe was leading his trade delegation to the United States, the government made public an historic reform relating to the financing of the monarchy, one that reduced the number of princely allowances as well as that earmarked for Queen Fabiola, implemented a verification of the royal family’s expenses, made royal allowances taxable, and envisaged a code of conduct for royal family members.

 

Why was such a reform introduced at that exact moment? Could it be that the financing question was being dealt with ahead of a possible change of monarch? With hindsight, the answer now appears to be clear.

 

Mid-June. During the weeks that followed their initial talk, the prime minister – who had thought long and hard about the situation – and the king discussed the topic of abdication on more than one occasion. They eventually agreed on the idea and the date, as well as the decision to not let many months pass between the announcement and the abdication, opting instead for just a few days. “There was nothing to gain from things moving slowly,” we were told.

 

The prime minister therefore accepted the abdication, and worked together with the king to select the best possible moment vis-à-vis the political calendar. They both opted for a date when the government would be available to deal with royal matters, after some progress on state reform within the Institutional Reform Implementation Committee (Comori), the European summit and the budget (where each party secured some successes).

 

The date was now set: the abdication would take place July 21.

 

June 17. The alleged illegitimate daughter of Albert II, Delphine Boël, launched a legal action to prove her royal blood, summoning the king, Prince Philippe, Princess Astrid and Jacques Boël to appear in court. Many onlookers jumped to the conclusion that the abdication scenario was dead in the water, because as long as the king remained on the throne, he would enjoy full immunity from legal proceedings.

 

But our sources were telling us quite the opposite. Last year, when Albert II considered bowing out in the middle of 2013, he made inquiries regarding his legal status in the event of an abdication, aware that Boël was likely to sue him sooner or later. He therefore took this issue into account when he began his deliberations. It is possible, in fact, that the legal case may well have helped to make his decision, given that he must surely have been weary of family problems.

 

July 3. At 1:15 p.m., the king received the prime Minister and the deputy prime ministers in his office at the Palace to inform them of his abdication.

 

At 2:24 p.m., the Palace released a statement: “The king will address the nation today on television and radio at 6 p.m.”

 

At six o’clock, the speech, recorded in the same royal office, was broadcast to the Belgian people. This time, there was no sign of the trembling that had dogged Albert II’s swearing-in before parliament on August 9, 1993. The king appeared at ease with his decision.

 

His “health” and “age” were the reasons given for no longer being able to carry out his functions as he would like.

 

And those match the reasons put forward by those closest to him, one of whom shared the following with us: “He’s worn out. He’s got backache and has had heart surgery. He’s 79, and has to make a real effort to listen to his ministers, his ambassadors and his private secretary, but he’s exhausted, because every problem – private, political, foreign, catastrophes, etc. – go all the way up to the head of state. He’s a spent man, who’s given his all. He’s always fulfilled his constitutional role with the utmost seriousness. At nearly 80 years of age, he can’t keep doing it – he’s done in. He wants to spend a few years with his wife (Editor’s note: an apartment in Rome is apparently currently being renovated for Albert and Paola). And he didn’t want to stay on the throne because he didn’t think he could properly carry out his duties as head of state – for example, he hadn’t gone on a foreign visit for two years. He was asked to go to Brazil, but he refused.”

 

Despite the surrounding pressures, Albert II, sure of his position, has therefore confirmed one of the most important decisions of his 20-year reign.

 

MARTINE DUBUISSON

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