Brussels, 21 July
Philippe ascended the throne of Belgium after the emotional abdication of his father Albert II today, vowing to strive for unity in a nation divided by language and tradition.
After he took the oath at the parliament filled with representatives of the 6 million Dutch-speaking Flemings and 4.5 million Francophones, Philippe insisted “the wealth of our nation and our institutions consists in turning our diversity into a strength”.
The ceremony capped a day of transition which started when Philippe’s father, the 79-year-old Albert, signed away his rights as the kingdom’s largely ceremonial ruler at the royal palace in the presence of Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, who holds the political power in this 183-year-old parliamentary democracy.
Less than two hours later, the nation got a new king when Philippe, 53, pledged to abide by Belgium’s laws and constitution.
While crowds of well-wishers cheered the royal family’s every move Sunday, far from everybody in Belgium was happy with the new king. One Flemish separatist group, the Flemish Interest party, boycotted the parliamentary ceremony, while the legislature’s biggest party, the N-VA New Flemish Alliance, sent only a limited delegation without its leader, Bart De Wever.
“We are full-blooded democrats and the purest form of democracy is the republic,” said Jan Jambon, the parliamentary leader of the party, which has surged to become the main opposition party seeking Flemish independence through transition.
Their absence also highlighted one of the biggest challenges Philippe will face in his reign how to remain relevant as a unitary symbol in a nation ever more drifting apart between the northern Flemings and the southern Francophones. Philippe made no attempt to paper over those cracks, instead casting the country’s division as one of its strengths.
“Time and again we find the balance between unity and diversity,” King Philippe said. “Belgium’s strength is precisely that we make room for our differences.”
Unlike a disturbance during the oath-taking by King Albert 20 years ago, when one legislator shouted “Long live the European Republic,” Sunday’s ceremony in the packed legislature was flawless, with Albert and Philippe’s wife, Queen Mathilde, looking on as he confidently took the oath.
Philippe has long been contested as a worthy successor of Albert, but after years of wooden and timid public performances, the silver-haired, bespectacled monarch came over as confident and pressure proof.