Belgium's new king calls for unity

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The Independent Online
ALBERT II, the King of the Belgians, yesterday warned his compatriots against the threat of social disintegration in Belgium and Europe.

The King was speaking after taking the royal oath in Parliament. He took the throne on the death of his brother Baudouin, who was laid to rest on Saturday. The ceremony was a low-key affair compared with the pomp and circumstance that surrounds a British coronation. The King swore to observe the constitution and laws and to maintain Belgian independence.

The proceedings were briefly interrupted by a cry of 'Long live the Republic of Europe]' from Jean-Pierre Van Rossem, leader of a libertarian party in Parliament, who was quickly shouted down by colleagues. A Communist deputy did the same thing during the swearing-in of King Baudouin and was found dead a few days later.

The King delivered a statesmanlike speech to the Parliament. 'We must beware of the menaces of individual and collective egoism, here and in Europe,' he said. He called for a greater sense of solidarity in the continent, and in Belgium, which is divided into three linguistic communities.

Giving his speech in French, Dutch and German, the King clearly sought to follow his brother in affirming the monarchy's role as a unifying force. He echoed many of the themes taken up by Baudouin when he spoke last month on Belgium's National Day.

King Albert, 59, is the younger brother of Baudouin, who died in Spain 10 days ago and for whom a memorial ceremony was held in Brussels on Saturday. He is known as an emissary of his country, having headed many trade missions. The new king has also shown an interest in the navy and shipping.

He has few formal powers and will play a mainly ceremonial role, though one of considerable importance in the divided country. His wife, Queen Paola, 55, will share the title with Queen Fabiola, the widow of Baudouin. Some in the Belgian press have suggested that she will add a new element of glamour and excitement to the royal household, speculation that seems to be based on the fact that she is Italian. As Princess Paola Ruffo di Calabria, she was once refused entry to the Vatican because she was wearing a mini-skirt.

The couple have three children, Philippe, 33, Astrid, 31 and Laurent, 29. It had been expected Albert would renounce the throne in favour of Philippe, but he decided to take it himself. Belgian law has been changed to allow women to take the throne.

(Photograph omitted)