A Crown of Thorns? Belgium's New King

Alexander Lee shows that Belgium’s new king will have to learn the lessons of the past.

Alexander Lee | Published 22 July 2013

Albert II, King of the BelgiansIt would be no surprise if 2013 were remembered by posterity as the year of abdications. Barely two months after the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI on  February 28th, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, too, decided to set aside her crown; and now, with the abdication of King Albert II of the Belgians, it seems as if early retirement is beginning to enjoy an uncommon vogue amongst Europe’s monarchs.

By their very nature, abdications are an opportunity to ‘reboot’ a monarchy. Despite all the pomp and circumstance, an abdication provokes questions about the character, history, and ‘modernity’ of the institution that is being passed on. In the case of the papacy, for example, the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI occasioned a palpable shift in attitudes towards the status and function of the pontiff which paved the way for Pope Francis’ emphasis on the humility and poverty of his office. So too, King Willem-Alexander – whose inauguration was markedly more peaceful than that of Queen Beatrix – has signalled his intention to build on the efforts made by his mother and grandmother to limit the crown’s role to the merely ceremonial, and to embody a spirit of Dutch unity and cultural internationalism.

The unexpected nature of Albert II’s abdication, however, has left the question of the future direction of the Belgian monarchy hanging. Yet however the new King Philippe positions himself in the years to come, he will need to recognise that his role has been shaped by the contorted history of the Belgian monarchy, and its future will require a searching re-evaluation of a difficult and often fractious past.

Thanks to the peculiar circumstances in which the Belgian crown came into being, Philippe will find himself in a position unlike that of any other European monarch, and far removed from the largely ceremonial role of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.

In contrast to other kingdoms, the Belgian monarchy was not handed down from time immemorial, but was consciously created by elected legislators in the wake of the country’s secession from Holland in 1830. Seeking to provide their plucky little nation with a measure of stability and continuity in troubled times, the National Congress settled upon a constitutional monarchy as the most secure form of government, and invited Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (r. 1831-65) to assume the new royal mantle.

Unlike other monarchs – whose prerogatives and obligations of the crown were established only through protracted struggles between the estates – the function of the Belgian crown was clearly laid down in the constitution from the very beginning. The form this took, however, was idiosyncratic, to say the least. While it was perhaps only natural that the king should be obliged to act as a guardian of Belgium’s unity and independence, given the country’s vulnerable position and profound cultural/religious differences, the manner in which this duty was to be discharged was defined in a manner that was both more exact and less precise than might have been wished. On the one hand, it was unambiguously decided that the king alone should have the power to appoint and dismiss ministers, to instigate legislation, and to handle foreign relations. While not dissimilar to the theory of the British constitution, the absence of any mitigating customs or traditions concentrated exceptional power in the king’s hands. On the other hand, however, no provision was made to ensure that the monarchy should remain above the political fray. It was merely assumed that the king would act without reference to personal ideological or religious considerations, an ‘invented’ custom that left the doors wide open to a highly politicised monarchy.

Although it was conceived in the spirit of early nineteenth-century European politics, the unfortunate consequence of this arrangement was that Belgium had placed itself on a knife-edge between a limited, constitutional monarchy, and barely-regulated absolutism. And like Louis XIV, many of Belgium’s kings have found it all too tempting to believe that they knew better than any mere minister, often with horrific effects. Indeed, it was primarily due to Belgium’s constitutional predisposition towards absolutism that the country experienced some of its darkest hours. It was by using his royal prerogatives to the full, for example, that Leopold II (r. 1865-1909) established the Congo Free State as his own personal property, and embarked upon a legendarily vicious campaign of oppression against its people. Even more dramatically, the decision of Leopold III (r. 1934-51) to assume total control of his kingdom at the beginning of the Second World War nearly tore it apart. Having shown a determination to increase his own powers at his ministers’ expense, Leopold III took command of the Belgian army in the face of the German advance, and, having refused to flee even after defeat was certain, not only surrendered, but even asked Hitler to allow him to rule as a Nazi stooge. Although exonerated of treason after the war, the perception that Leopold had acted treacherously provoked a general strike on his return from captivity, and would have led to Wallonia declaring its independence had he not been persuaded to abdicate at the last moment. In his own – more restricted – way, even Albert II, too, has fallen foul of the temptation of authoritarianism, courting controversy in mounting a thinly-veiled attack on Bart de Wever’s populist New Flemish Alliance during his 2012 Christmas message.

Yet, as Philippe will no doubt know, this peculiar constitutional situation has also enabled many Belgian kings the latitude to act more decisively in the interests of their people than any other European monarch has been able to do.

On the one hand, Philippe’s predecessors have used their powers to resolve political impasses or to arbitrate in times of upheaval. Despite his failings in other regards, Leopold II was called upon by the disenfranchised workers of Mons to protect them from his government during the National Strike of 1893, while his son, Albert I (r. 1909-34) involved himself closely in bringing an end to the General Strike of 1913. More recently, Albert II’s mediation was instrumental in bringing to an end the political deadlock which left the country without a government for a paralysing 541 days in 2010-11.   

On the other hand, kings have had the facility to act directly to improve social conditions or to ameliorate its political culture. Leopold I, for example, endeavoured to force through legislation regulating child and female labour, while Albert I took a profound interest in the condition of the working classes, and played a decisive role in the introduction of universal suffrage. Even more impressively, Baudouin (r. 1951-93) established a foundation in his own name in 1976 to improve standards of living, and actively improved the standing of both crown and government in 1990. Since he felt unable to assent to a law liberalising abortion without compromising his deep Catholic faith, Baudouin asked to be declared unfit to reign for a single day (4-5 April), during which time the government was able to ratify the law on its own initiative.

As King Albert II hands his crown to his son, he could do worse than urge Philippe to meditate carefully on the lessons of the monarchy’s history. The challenges that he will face will almost certainly be as great – if not greater – than anything faced by any of his predecessors. Suffering from a mounting sovereign debt crisis, Belgium is experiencing low growth, industrial contraction, and worsening unemployment. Household incomes are at best static, and in many cases, declining. The political outlook is no better. Especially given the rise of the fiercely right-wing New Flemish Alliance, the country’s government is unstable at best, and its capacity to address crucial economic questions is uncertain. Worse still, political and economic factors have conspired to worsen the age-old rivalry between Flanders and Wallonia, and the spectre of dissolution continues to haunt the nation. In light of the peculiarities of the Belgian constitution, the future king will be crucial in helping to guide the country through the coming years. His decisions may shape not only the character of government, but also the wellbeing of his people, and the future of Belgium as a whole. If he uses his power wisely, he could reign as a new Baudouin or Albert I; but if he errs, he could find himself without a kingdom. In a sense, he is a prisoner of history; but history may well be his best guide in wearing what is undoubtedly a crown of thorns. 

Alexander Lee is a research fellow at the University of Warwick. His book The Ugly Renaissance will be published by Hutchison on September 26th.

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