King in embalming fluid

The Belgian former Prime Minister Jean-Luc Deheane once sighed that King Albert II should be king as long as possible. "We will put him in embalming fluid if necessary". Abdication is not likely in Brussels. There will be elections for the Belgian federal parliament and the regional assemblies of Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels. In Wallonia the socialists dominate and in Flanders the Nieuwe Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA, New Flemish Alliance) is at 40 percent in election polls. Albert has to steer Belgium through murky waters.

Last week, I was at the Royal Palace in Brussels as a guest to the Reception of Constituted Bodies, the New Year's reception of the King. Constituted Bodies are the lead figures of the Belgian state institutions and it is a literal translation of the French corps constitués. As a result I was sitting there among ministers, party chairmen, leaders of parliamentary groups, generals, magistrates and editors of newspapers. I ended up there as the chair of the Belgian delegation (and also only member) in the group of European Conservatives and Reformists in the European Parliament. A fragile basis for a Dutchman in this select company, admittedly. Nevertheless the King asked us to continue to inspire the Belgian state.

It was the day after Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands announced her abdication. Many Constituted Bodies came to me stating that this is not possible in Belgium. "We cannot do without Albert", was their conclusion. Albert's father, King Leopold III, abdicated in 1950, though perforce, after he visited German leader Adolf Hitler for a cup of tea during the Second World War. King Boudewijn died unexpectedly in 1993, after which his brother Albert took on the mantle of leadership. A Dutch Queen abdicating does not have to worry about a Frisian declaration of independence or Limburg separating itself. The integrity of the Kingdom is not at stake. Yet that is exactly the main concern of the Belgian King.

Belgium has gone through a transformation from a unitary French-speaking state to a federal entity with three communities, three official languages, six governments, six parliaments and nearly fifty Ministers of State. This resulted in a lot of Constituted Bodies of course, who - in Marxist terms - were rather late in acknowledging the change in the societal base. Driving force was the emancipation of the Flemish, initially through a battle over language and later thanks to economic progress. Flanders is now one of the richest regions in Europe, while in Wallonia the demise of industry is taking its toll. Wallonia is leftist; Flanders rightist. Try forming a Belgian government with that. The government of Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, Wallonian socialist, came into being after a formation of 541 days: an absolute world record that used to be in the hands of Iraq.

This is the environment in which the 78-year old Albert has to operate. The ties Albert has with Flanders are essential. He is popular, speaks Dutch well and once even sung along with De Vlaamse Leeuw (The Flemish Lion) on a Flemish holiday. The same cannot be said about most other members of his family, who generally speak Dutch in an artificial way. Their main language is French, and every Flemish realises that. When Princess Maxima took away all doubts in the Netherlands by speaking Dutch in a proper way, a 'reverse Maxima effect' arose in Flanders. In every Flemish town the question arose: "Why can't they do that here?"

Crown Prince Willem Alexander is ready for the throne, despite making some rookie mistakes in the private sphere (Father Zorreguieta, the villa in Mozambique). Many Flemish however question exactly this in case of the Belgian Crown Prince Filip. In 2004 he told the weekly magazine Story; "Parties like the Vlaams Belang are against Belgium, they want to destroy our country. If you mess with Belgium, you mess with me. I am a tough one." Prime Minister Verhofstadt slapped 'Filip the Tough' on the fingers. In 2007 he scolded two Flemish editors because of negative coverage, during the Reception of Constituted Bodies even. Again the Prime Minister had to reprimand him. Such heavily laden political statements are explosive in the oversensitive Belgian system. Filip turned himself into a risk factor.

The formation of 2014 is, deo volente, approaching Albert. In his Christmas speech he pulled out the big guns. He warned against the 'populist argumentation' and referred to the 1930s. A pointing finger to the N-VA of Bart De Wever? The Constituted Bodies are clinging desperately to the King and will, if necessary, put him in embalming fluids. @djeppink