Belgium hastens royal succession to maintain unity role

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The Independent Online
THE funeral of King Baudouin, the Belgian monarch, will be held on Saturday in Brussels, bringing together representatives of Europe's royal families at a time of crisis on the continent.

The succession is being accelerated, partly because there is a desire to truncate the period of mourning, partly because there is a need to fill the gap left by the monarch.

Baudouin's brother, Prince Albert of Liege, 59, will succeed on Monday, according to officials in Brussels. It had been expected that Albert's son Philippe, 33, would take the throne, but according to some officials it was felt a more mature figure was needed. Belgium is in the throes of finding a new balance between the French- and Flemish- speaking communities.

Albert's succession had been unexpected by the Belgian media, which had been led to believe that Philippe was the next king. Though he has been coached in his role for years, and though signals from the palace had implied he was to be the next monarch, the decision was taken rapidly.

The mourning period has been reduced from the month announced by the goverment, on the wishes of Queen Fabiola, Baudouin's widow, and will end on Monday. Yesterday flags still hung from windows across the city. The death, and expressions of sadness, filled most newspapers. The monarchy's unifying role was underlined by all the papers on both sides of the linguistic divide.

Several noted the announcement of Albert's succession and commented on it discreetly. 'Who was surprised at the fact that Prince Albert will succeed his brother to the throne? Everybody,' said Le Soir.

The funeral will be a 'homage bringing a message of hope' rather than just a memorial service, said the Prime Minister, Jean-Luc Dehaene. It will see the arrival in Brussels of representatives of royalty from around the world. The Belgian monarchy retains more powers than many others, though these are reduced by a new constitutional deal.

But it is uncertain whether Albert, who will become Albert II, can fill the gap left by his brother. He is largely an enigmatic figure, even to the Belgians. Yesterday's newspapers tried to flesh out his personality. 'On the private side, we know little of the man - only of his love for motorbikes,' wrote La Nouvelle Gazette. He is also known for his passion for boats and the sea. He became division admiral in the Belgian navy in 1976.

Even though many of the newspapers pay tribute to the Prince's diplomatic skills, he is not seen as such a moral tower of strength in the same way as Baudouin.