Posted : 2013/07/20 6:34 pm
King Albert II of Belgium announced his abdication last week: he will pass on the responsibility to Crown Prince Philippe. Rather than creating certainty, the king's decision has raised rather existential questions. On July 21, King Albert's crown will pass to his oldest son. His departure after 20 years on the throne comes as Belgium considers reducing the role of the king or even abolishing the monarchy altogether. Pressure now lies on Albert's son Philippe to restore the royal family's image as a beacon of stability in the country. But there's one question: Is he ready to face this task? Some members of the media who follow the Belgian royal family have their doubts. Shy and timid 'One of Philippe's biggest problems is his communication skills,' said Steven Samyn of the daily newspaper De Morgen. Prince Philippe isn't the most popular member of the Belgian royal family: 'He is a rather shy, timid person who lacks a bit of natural spontaneity. When he sees a camera, he gets kind of tense. So the images we see and quotes we hear are never very natural.' The future heir to the throne is aware of his standing and has sought to change his image in recent years. Attempts to depict the father of four children as a family man have helped somewhat. In May, the prince even participated in a running race in Brussels to mingle with the public and show another, more personal side. But improving his public image seems the lesser of Philippe's problems. The royal family recently suffered from major scandals, including an alleged attempt by Queen Paola to dodge inheritance taxes. Belgian politicians have also been urging for a reform of the monarchy, according to Samyn. 'A lot of political parties, especially in the Flemish-speaking part of the country, want to change the role of the monarchy; they want a more symbolic, ceremonial king,' he said. Future responsibilities Some politicians, Samyn noted, aren't eager to have a new king - especially Prince Philippe - at what they consider to be a crucial period in Belgium's history. Due to cultural and linguistic splits in the country, Belgium was unable to form a governing coalition for about a year and a half in 2010 and 2011. But many of the country's French-speaking residents, he added, view the monarchy as one of the last institutions that can hold the nation together. Since Albert announced his abdication, political parties have seized the opportunity to debate the role and responsibilities of the future king. Although abolishing the monarchy has never been on the agenda, calls to completey cut the political responsibilities of the Belgian king have won support from several parties, including the Greens. 'Some parties want to go very far and end the monarchy,' said Stefaan Van Hecke, chairman of the Greens in parliament. 'Others say, 'OK, we can keep it but no political power anymore.'' Van Hecke believes that many Belgians still want the monarchy, and he also questions what the alternative could be. Plenty of jokes Van Hecke asked if Belgium would prefer a president instead. 'And if we elect a president, who would be the president: a Dutch-speaking or a French-speaking person?' This would make a difficult choice, he said. 'Maybe Belgium is not the country to have a president and maybe it's better to have a king.' Within the debate, the royal family is also frequently the butt of jokes. Among them: that the Belgian national football team does more for Belgian cohesion than its monarchy. With Philippe's coronation just days away, the question remains as to whether the future king will be able to play his role as a symbol of national unity, according to Samyn. 'If you have a strong figure as a king, you can really keep the country more or less together,' he said. Some defenders of Belgium's unity, however, are worried that Prince Philippe could be a weak king, he added. At a time when political tensions are boiling in the country, Philippe clearly has his work cut out.