BRUSSELS – Belgium turns a page of history Sunday, ushering in its seventh king, Philippe, on a day of celebrations clouded by concern over the future of the divided nation.
Under sunny skies and a light summer breeze, flags fluttered across Brussels as crowds in the streets shouted “Long Live the King” in farewell to Albert II, 79, who abdicates after 20 years on the throne at 0830 GMT.
At noon, Philippe, 53, dressed in full military uniform, will take his oath of office in the country’s three official languages — French, Flemish and German — before Parliament.
The fanfare kicked off with a mass of thanksgiving at the medieval cathedral of Saint Michael and Gudula, packed with the Belgian government and officials, but with no foreign guests in attendance in accordance with local custom.
Dressed in full military uniform, Albert slowly mounted the cathedral steps helped by his wife Paola as Philippe and his wife Mathilde, followed by other members of the family took their places.
“It is a new page for the monarchy,” said Maximilien De Wouters, a student of 24 draped in the black, yellow and red national flag.
But worries persist that the shy and often awkward prince Philippe may lack the political skills of his father to maintain unity in a nation deeply divided between its Flemish- and French-speaking halves.
Mathilde, an outgoing 40-year-old who will be Belgium’s first home-grown queen, is seen as his best asset in the couple’s campaign to win the hearts of their 11.5 million people.
In a farewell address to the nation Saturday, Albert said that as both king and a father, his “very dear wish” was that Belgians offer their “support” to Philippe and Mathilde.
“They form an excellent couple at the service of our country,” he said.
The monarchy more often than not is viewed as a rare symbol of Belgium’s unity — along with its iconic fries and the national football team.
But while the French-speakers of the south remain largely royalist, Flemish-speaking Flanders, home to 60 percent of the population, has cooled. There, the powerful separatist N-VA party favors a republic, or at least a royal as figurehead only.
“I am a fan of the royal family,” said Cindy van Merheulen, 34, from Limburg in Flanders. “I want to welcome Philippe. Nearly all Belgians love the king, the problem is that those who are against shout louder.”
In the last decades, severe tensions across the linguistic divide in a country that hosts key global institutions such as the EU and NATO, have seen it morph progressively into a federal state that devolves increasing powers to its language-based regions.
During his two decades at the helm, Albert II helped steer the country through several crises and avoid break-up.
He played a key role to end its longest political crisis in 2010-2011 when the country went through a record-breaking 541 days without a government.
In his speech Saturday, he said his first wish as he stepped down was to see Belgium “retain its cohesion”.
“I am convinced that maintaining the cohesion of our Federal state is vital, not only for our quality of life together, which requires dialogue, but also so as to preserve the well-being of all,” he said.
Many fear that the separatist N-VA, the strongest party in Flanders, will make further gains in next May’s general election.
With the country mindful of the need to tighten government spending due to Europe’s economic crisis, Sunday’s celebrations that take place on its National Day will be kept to around 600,000 euros ($788,000), on a par with the annual July 21 event.