Europe unites to mourn Belgian monarch

Click to follow
The Independent Online
BELGIUM paid tribute to its dead King, Baudouin, yesterday, an event that brought together kings, queens, princes and presidents from across Europe and beyond.

He was, said Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene, 'a profoundly good man'. The Saint- Michel Cathedral, where the service was held, was surrounded by vast and silent crowds.

Queen Fabiola, Baudouin's widow, walked slowly behind the coffin, which lay on a gun carriage towed by an armoured car. Dressed strikingly in white, she led a cortege that included most of the crowned heads of Europe.

The city was silent but for the roar of helicopters ferrying dignitaries to and fro and the dull thumps of a 21-gun salute. Nobody who was in Brussels last week can have failed to be impressed by the display of mourning, the pictures of the King in shop windows, the knotted flags hanging from windows.

It is rare that the country wears its heart on its sleeve like this. 'Like an ocean, emotion has flooded Belgium,' wrote Le Soir.

'We wish to pay tribute to our King,' said one man outside the Cathedral early yesterday morning. 'We will miss him.' Another was wearing his old army uniform and a black armband, silently staring at the sky. Many slept on the pavement overnight. Hundreds of thousands queued to see him lie in state. Many wept openly during the service.

Queen Elizabeth, unusually, attended personally, although she and the Duke of Edinburgh did not walk with the cortege. Also there were King Harald of Norway, King Carl Gustav of Sweden, Queen Margrethe of Denmark, King Juan Carlos of Spain, and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. Francois Mitterrand of France, Richard von Weizsacker of Germany and Lech Walesa of Poland led a list of presidents from 20 countries. Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia was among them.

King Baudouin was one of the last of a generation of post- war monarchs. He took the throne in 1951 at a time when national healing was needed and the wounds of war were still raw. Queen Elizabeth is now the sole representative of that generation.

Many of the monarchs present still have importance as symbols of national cohesion, such as King Juan Carlos of Spain, who is often seen as the model monarch by younger European royals, a man who stood up for democracy in his country when it was under threat. But the constitutional powers of these men and women are small. The Belgian monarchy loses most of its powers under present constitutional reforms. Only Prince Hans- Adam of Liechtenstein remains a figure of power and authority.

There were riots and near- civil war when King Baudouin's father, Leopold, returned to Belgium in 1950. Strong feelings about his decision to surrender to Germany in 1940 and remain in the occupied country eventually forced his abdication.

Baudouin, by contrast, came to represent unity for a country divided by language. And he was also, like the woman who was said to herald the 'new Elizabethan age', a symbol of hope for the future.

Now Belgium has turned to Prince Albert of Liege, the King's brother. He will be sworn in on Monday. The country is deep in crisis over the linguistic divide, and is all but breaking up. 'Unity can mean something,' said one mourner outside the cathedral yesterday. 'It is here, here today with us.' Another mourner said: 'There are a lot of Belgians. You need an event like this to prove it.'

This was, in some ways, the meeting of a family, most descended from Queen Victoria but often bound by more recent ties. It is the acknowledgement of a kinship that was once powerful and important.

Visitors from outside the family, the Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko also chose to join the cortege. Crown Prince Sidi Mohammed of Morocco represented his father, King Hassan, and Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn represented King Bhumibol of Thailand. Somewhere there was Gerald Ford, erstwhile president, added to the list after the original US choice - Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter's vice-president - aroused anger in Belgium. Albert Gore, Bill Clinton's Vice-President, who would normally have been expected to attend, remained in Washington to cast the decisive vote in a budget debate.

Politicians, noted Le Soir, are unfavourably compared to monarchs, precisely because they govern. 'The great lesson of these last days is without doubt, in the final analysis, the need for the population to find hope and identity in a world where ideologies have collapsed and problems have become highly complex,' it said. 'It is this need that the political class must try to satisfy, in Belgium as in Europe.'

(Photograph omitted)