Belgium’s 79-year-old King Albert has announced that he would abdicate in favour of his son, Prince Philippe, in a surprise address to the nation that comes weeks after a woman claiming to be his daughter launched court proceedings to prove her paternity.
King Albert II will be the second European monarch this year to hand over the reins to the next generation, after the abdication of the Netherlands’ Queen Beatrix in April. But while Beatrix was following the tradition of her mother and grandmother, abdications are less common in Belgium, where the royal family is one of the few institutions uniting the French-speaking south and the Flemish-speaking north.
King Albert said he had decided to end his 20-year reign because “my age and health no longer allow me to carry out my duties as I would like to”. Speaking slowly and reading from notes, he told his 11 million subjects that his son Philippe, 53, was “very well prepared” to become the seventh king on 21 July.
It has been a trying year for the Belgian royals. In January, King Albert’s sister-in-law, Queen Fabiola, was accused of trying to shield some of her fortune from inheritance tax.
Then in June, Delphine Boël asked a court to order the king and two of his children to give DNA samples to prove her claim that she is the product of an affair between Albert and an aristocrat.
The jovial and chatty king has proved popular since inheriting the crown after the death of his brother, Baudouin, in 1993. Albert helped mediate when the nation went for 541 days without a government in 2010-11, in part because of the deep divisions between politicians from both sides of Belgium’s linguistic divide.
Whether Prince Philippe is able to maintain that stability could help decide the future unity of the European nation.