In a televised speech at 6 p.m. today King Albert II of the Belgians, standing in front of a portrait of the country’s first king and the dynasty’s founder, Léopold I, announced that he will abdicate in favour of his eldest son, 53-year-old Prince Philippe, on 21 July, the national day.
King Albert observed that he had entered his eightieth year (on 6 June) and is now the eldest monarch in Belgian history, and that he no longer felt wholly able to fulfill his royal duties. He also expressed his full confidence in his son and daughter-in-law, Princess Mathilde.
King Albert succeeded to the throne on 9 August 1993 after the early death of his elder brother, King Baudouin. Prince Philippe had been groomed as his uncle’s successor and it was widely expected that the then Prince Albert would at some stage renounce his rights in favour of his son. However, when King Baudouin died at the age of 62, Prince Philippe was only 33 and his 59-year-old father assumed the kingship.
He came to the throne only weeks after Belgium, a country torn between the French-speaking minority and the Flemish-speaking majority, had become a federation. But the political division did not decrease and twice King Albert found himself unable for months to appoint a viable government; in 2007-2008 for three months, in 2010-2011 for a world-record eighteen months (541 days). The continued political strife is believed to have taken its toll on the King.
This will be the fourth time this year that a monarch abdicates. There is no tradition for voluntarily abdication in Belgium; indeed the concept of abdication is not mentioned in the Constitution. King Albert’s father, King Léopold III, was forced to abdicate in 1951 amid great controversy over his role in the Second World War, when he had refused to follow his government into exile and voluntarily handed himself over to become a German prisoner.
However, the fact that abdication has now become a tradition in both the Netherlands and Luxembourg may have influenced King Albert’s decision and perhaps made it easier. As King Albert is a devout Catholic, he may perhaps also have been influenced by the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI in February this year. Indeed the reasons given for his abdication resemble those given by the former Pope.
As far as I can see it has not yet been announced what title King Albert will have after his abdication. While the three Dutch queens who have abdicated have reverted to the title of princess, following Queen Wilhelmina’s argument that abdication is the same as constitutional death, King Albert’s father retained the title of king following his abdication. The Luxembourgian monarchs who have abdicated, including King Albert’s brother-in-law, Grand Duke Jean, have also retained their titles.
Belgium is the only kingdom in Europe where the accession of the heir does not follow automatically on the death of the monarch. On the demise of the monarch, the government will carry out the functions of the head of state until the heir takes the oath to the Constitution. In 1993 there was an interval of nine days between the death of King Baudouin on 31 July and the inauguration of King Albert on 9 August, but this time Prince Philippe will swear the oath on the same day as his father abdicates.