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The Belgian King’s brief? Unite a divided nation

The new Belgian monarch is a former fighter pilot – and he will have a scrap on his hands trying to maintain the unity of this hybrid country

The language divide that  bisects Belgium cleaved the University of Leuven in two nearly half a century ago, but waiting tables in the shadow of the institution’s imposing neo-Gothic  library, 34-year-old Elke does not care for talk of her country going the same way.

“I don’t feel there is a difference between Wallonia and Flanders,” she says, referring to the French-speaking south and Flemish-speaking north, which along with bilingual Brussels make up Belgium’s three regions.

She is equally indifferent about events tomorrow, when King Albert II, 79, will abdicate and hand the throne to his son Philippe, a 53-year-old former fighter pilot seen as stiff and awkward compared to his easy-going father. “I don’t think a king is necessary here in Belgium,” Elke says.

On this point, however, many of her French-speaking compatriots a few miles away in Wallonia disagree.

As Belgium prepares for elections next year, and with Flemish separatists riding high in the polls, any changes which could upset the delicate unity of the Belgian state are closely watched. Chief among them today is the arrival of a new king seen as lacking the gravitas of his father.

“The Royal Family is certainly perceived as the last cement which keeps Belgium together,” says Bart Maddens, a politics professor at the University of Leuven. “This is a perception that is very strong, especially in the Francophone part.”

Leuven University was one casualty of Belgium’s bitter divide. The nation split into its three regions in the 1960s, a reform aimed at devolving power and healing divisions that had plagued the country since it gained independence from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1830. Separatist sentiment grew when the collapse of heavy industry in Wallonia shifted the wealth to the north. The reform left the French-speaking Catholic University of Leuven marooned in Flanders. Unable to reach agreement on which language to teach in, Francophone staff eventually decamped a few miles away to Wallonia, building Louvain-la-Neuve – New Leuven – to house the Université Catholique de Louvain.

The cultural gulf which separates Flanders, home to 60 per cent of the population, and Wallonia remains huge and affects everything from politics to the media. Even Belgium’s pop charts are divided along linguistic lines: in the week Philippe takes the crown, six French artists are in the Top 10 in Wallonia. In Flanders, there are none.

That only one institution is seen as bridging that divide gives the Belgian monarch more influence than most in Europe. Kings have often stepped in to calm tensions, most recently after elections in 2010 saw record votes for the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), which advocates transition to an independent Flanders. After 541 days without a government, King Albert eventually helped to mediate a settlement which brought the Italian-born Elio Di Rupo to power with his Socialists leading a coalition.

“The politicians in Flanders have long distrusted Philippe,” says Mr Maddens. “They have tried to postpone the abdication until after the election next year because they felt King Albert would be much more capable of solving the situation if there is a new crisis.”

The N-VA – a  republican party – wants to strip the King of his role as head of the armed forces and reduce the pay of royals until they are on the same as a cabinet minister. “We have more princes and princesses who are paid than Disneyland in Paris. It’s crazy,” says Theo Francken, N-VA mayor of a village outside Leuven.

Perhaps aware that these are delicate times, the government is keeping costs for Sunday’s coronation low.

This low-key approach is reflected at the main royal residence in a leafy northern suburb of Brussels. On a  recent sunny weekend, a tour bus pulled up at the gates. Perhaps expecting to see some sign of a coronation just days away, the tourists paused briefly outside. But there was no sea of flags or crowds of well-wishers, and the bus trundled on.

One of the few people there was Fanchon Grossen, 23, from Brussels, who was showing some visitors the sights. She thinks Philippe should be given a chance to prove himself – and that the nation depends on it. “Our country has so many problems between the French and the Dutch and, if there is no King, there will be really more problems,” she says.

Belgium’s monarchy: A brief history

Despite there having been only six Belgian monarchs since it gained independence from the Netherlands in 1830, the heads of state have colourfully shaped its complex history as a constitutional monarchy.

The Prince of Saxe-Coburg became King Leopold I in 1831 after a busy childhood, which included holding the position of Colonel of the Russian Imperial Guard at the age of five, and refusing to be Napoleon’s field assistant at 16.

His son, Leopold II, who reigned from 1865 to 1909, colonised the Congo, profiting hugely as he pillaged the country’s resources. After King Albert I’s death in 1934, Leopold III’s reign saw a period of turbulence both for the monarchy and the Francophone and Flemish communities.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Leopold III surrendered to the Germans and was deported. Prince Charles was made Regent in 1944, holding the post until 1950. Perhaps suggesting his provincial allegiances, he signed the art he created after withdrawing from public life as “Charles of Flanders”.

In 1950, the electorate voted for Leopold III’s return but riots saw his eldest son, Baudouin, take the throne in 1951. After his death in 1993, his brother, Albert, was sworn in. Albert’s son Philippe is viewed by Flemish critics a French-speaking outsider.

Kashmira Gander