Belgium salutes its new king and queen with 101-gun salute
IT was a swearing in rather than a coronation, but as cannon roared in a 101-gun salute yesterday Belgians celebrated the moment one king abdicated and another began his reign as the seventh monarch in their country's 180-year history.
During an emotional ceremony in the Royal Palace, King Albert II, aged 79, signed a formal act of abdication before his son, aged 53, who was sworn in as King Philippe in all three of the divided country's federal languages of Dutch, French and German.
Dressed in full military uniform, the new king pledged: "I swear to abide by the constitution and laws of the Belgian people, to maintain national independence and the integrity of the land."
As crowds of well wishers gathered outside in bright sunshine to celebrate their new head of state, King Philippe continued: "I begin my reign with the desire to put myself at the service of all Belgians.
"I will work for it in perfect agreement with the government and in accordance with the constitution.
"The wealth of our country and our institutional system lies particularly in the fact that our diversity is strength. Whenever we find a balance between unity and diversity, the strength of Belgium is precisely to give meaning to our diversity."
The outgoing king, who was just three weeks from his 20th anniversary on the throne, stepped aside after five difficult years in which deep divisions between squabbling Flemish and Walloon political parties repeatedly pushed the country to the brink of break-up. At one point he was forced to play mediator between feuding politicians from the two communities for the 541 days it took for them to form a government – a world record though of dubious distinction – after the 2011 election.
He has also faced royal scandals that have damaged the standing of the monarchy, including a current court case brought by an aristocratic artist who claims to be his illegitimate daughter. He concluded his own reign with an exhortation to Belgians to "work tirelessly" to hold their divided country together.
"You'll be even more peacemakers, you'll better defend the well-being of all, and our country will remain an inspiration for a Europe seeking unity in diversity," he said, his voice trembling.
An indication of the challenge faced by King Philippe is the contrast between the many houses in French-speaking Wallonia and bourgeois Brussels draped in the national colours of black, yellow and red to celebrate yesterday's events, and Flemish cities which have shown near indifference.
Bart De Wever, leader of the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), the separatist and republican party that became the country's largest in 2010, boycotted the royal ceremonies.