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Up to the task?

Laurens Cerulus / jbJuly 20, 2013

King Albert II of Belgium has abdicated, passing on the responsibility to Crown Prince Philippe. Rather than creating certainty, it has Belgians asking whether Europe's newest monarch is up to the task.

King Philippe of Belgium takes the oath during a swearing in ceremony at the Belgian Parliament (photo: REUTERS/Bruno Fahy)
Image: Reuters

Belgium's King Albert has abdicated, passing on the crown to his oldest son. His departure after 20 years on the throne comes as Belgium considers reducing the role of the king or even abolishing the monarchy altogether. Pressure now lies on Philippe to restore the royal family's image as a beacon of stability in the country.

But there's one question: Is he ready to face this task? Some royal watchers have their doubts.

Shy and timid

"One of Philippe's biggest problems is his communication skills," said Steven Samyn of Belgian daily newspaper De Morgen. Prince Philippe isn't the most popular member of the country's royal family: "He is a rather shy, timid person who lacks a bit of natural spontaneity. When he sees a camera, he gets kind of tense. So the images we see and quotes we hear are never very natural."

The future heir to the throne is aware of his standing and has sought to change his image in recent years. Attempts to depict the father of four as a family man have helped somewhat. In May, the prince even participated in a running race in Brussels to mingle with the public and show another, more personal side.

Philipp and his wife Princes Mathilde. (Copyright: imago/Reporters)
Philipp and his wife Princess Mathilde are headed for the throneImage: Imago

But improving his public image seems the lesser of Philippe's problems. The royal family recently involved in several major scandals, including an alleged attempt by Queen Paola to dodge inheritance taxes.

Belgian politicians have also been urging a reform of the monarchy, according to Samyn. "A lot of political parties, especially in the Flemish-speaking part of the country, want to change the role of the monarchy; they want a more symbolic, ceremonial king," he said.

Future responsibilities

Some politicians, Samyn noted, aren't eager to have a new king - especially Prince Philippe - at what they consider to be a crucial period in Belgium's history. Due to cultural and linguistic splits within the country, Belgium was unable to form a governing coalition for about a year and a half in 2010 and 2011.

But many of the country's French-speaking residents, he added, view the monarchy as one of the last institutions that can hold the nation together.

Since Albert announced his abdication, political parties have seized the opportunity to debate the role and responsibilities of the future king.

Although abolishing the monarchy has never been on the agenda, calls to completey cut the political responsibilities of the Belgian king have won support from several parties, including the Greens.

"Some parties want to go very far and end the monarchy," said Stefaan Van Hecke, chairman of the Greens political parliament in parliament. "Others say, 'OK, we can keep it, but it shouldn't have political power anymore.'"

Belgium's King Albert II Philippe on July 21, 2013. (Photo: REUTERS/Eric Lalmand/Pool)
King Albert II is stepping down from the throne after 20 yearsImage: Reuters

Van Hecke believes many Belgians still want the monarchy, and he also questions what the alternative could be.

Plenty of jokes

Van Hecke asked if Belgium would prefer a president instead. "And if we elect a president, who would be the president: a Dutch-speaking or a French-speaking person?" This would be a difficult choice, he said. "Maybe Belgium is not the country to have a president and maybe it's better to have a king."

Within the debate, the royal family is also frequently the butt of jokes. Among them: that the Belgian national football team does more for Belgian cohesion than its monarchy.

Following Philippe's coronation, the question remains as to whether the future king will be able to play his role as a symbol of national unity, according to Samyn.

"If you have a strong figure as a king, you can really keep the country more or less together," he said. Some defenders of Belgium's unity, however, are worried that Prince Philippe could be a weak king, he added.

At a time when political tensions are boiling in the country, Philippe clearly has his work cut out.