King Philippe and King [of the Netherlands] Willem Alexander's reign are almost mirrored to one another in terms of country, style and political environment. Willem Alexander can, as long as he does not commit blunders, always fall back on the 'Orange sentiment' of a nation-state roaring down on itself. Two coronations: a celebration for the people versus establishment happening. Philippe has to navigate in an 'artificial state' with 3 languages, seven parliaments and bus-loads of ministers. Attempts to form a government in 2010-2011 lasted 541 days, a world record. In 2014 the political big bang will follow: elections at the federal and the state level on the same day. Does Philippe, King of the Belgians, have the gift to keep the country together? To do this he must win the Flemish over.
To the Dutch the southern neighbour has always been a rather chaotic country, a cartel of 589 villages. Brussels consists of 19 villages and Antwerp calls itself a city, but is it? Belgium is also the only country that I know of that has a sort of 'Belgian ambassador to Belgium'. Retired Ambassador Johan Swinnen mediates between the many governments (federal and states) all conducting their own foreign policy. Swinnen has the necessary experience on heavy items such as Congo (colonial past), Rwanda (genocide of 1994) and the Netherlands (Dutch pride).
Yet there is 'method' to the Belgian 'madness', and the king, with his advisors, is at the core of it. The King of the Belgians has to apply the glue that keeps his kingdom together. He glues in place prominent figures by elevating them to nobility; from businessman to sports hero, singer, astronaut or royalist journalist. Eddy Merckx for instance is also 'Baron Merckx'. Politicians can make it to 'minister of state', of which there are around fifty. A sensibility to honorary titles proves to be an effective binder.
The King of the Belgians, however, has lost an important lever in recent years. The royal family had unprecedented influence on leading figures in the Belgian financial world. When the Dutch ANB-AMRO wanted to take over the Belgian Generale Bank in 1998 King Albert opposed from behind the scenes. He asked Fortis CEO Maurice Lippens to prevent the acquisition. And so he did. Shortly afterwards, Lippens became Count Lippens. When Sabena went bankrupt in 2001, King Albert was aghast: a country with no airline is like a king without a crown. He appealed to Viscount Etienne Davignon who brought together the seed money for the new 'SN Brussels'. However, the banking crisis brought the Belgian banking sector into French hands.
Francophones in Brussels are the real royalist Belgians. For the Walloons the Belgian state has practical utility because it guarantees a transfer system in which Flanders sends 5.9 per cent of its gross regional product to Wallonia and Brussels. For every Fleming that equals about 1,900 euros per year, an average net monthly wage. That turns Walloon socialists into royalists. In Flanders, this stings. Many voters wonder how long the transfers will continue and the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) expresses that feeling. That party, already the largest now, is polled at 35 per cent of the votes.
King Albert has always understood that his image in Flanders is essential. In 1994, a year after taking office, he visited Bruges on the Flemish holiday of 11 July and sang along to the Flemish anthem The Flemish Lion. Can Philippe also develop as much empathy that quickly? The Flemish are in doubt. They were surprised how quickly Princess Maxima learned Dutch. What she did in three years most Belgian royals failed to do in thirty. At the Belgian Court, French is the lingua franca. In addition, the presentation of Philippe is stiff, for it is formed in a world of protocol. When as a young father he played with his children, he wore a tie. As his Head of Cabinet Philippe was assigned Baron Frans Van Daele, an experienced career diplomat who has been in tight spots. He has to protect Philippe from himself.
Philippe fears a triumph of the N-VA and will mobilise everyone who has an interest in the 'Belgian system'; from high and low nobility to fawning politicians, royalist journalists and intellectuals. They praise the North-South transfers - the source of the Flemish frustration - as an expression of solidarity. They disregard the discontent as being antisocial, nationalist and separatist. Philippe faces a sceptical Flanders that does not take him seriously. If he does not manage, as his father did, to show more empathy toward the Flemish, he will lose Flanders.