The accession day of King Philippe of Belgium on July 21, 2013, began with a Te Deum at Saint Michael and Saint Gudula Cathedral in Brussels. A classical Gregorian Te Deum was sung by a twelve strong choir conducted by Arnaud Van De Cauter, the tenured organist at Notre-Dame du Sablon. It was a traditional opening to a day that was very much about contemporary matters. Belgium is something of an enigma, a nation that seems to be in a constant struggle with its internal tensions whilst also sitting at the heart of European affairs. The nation’s multi-faceted character, its diversity is, its supporters believe, its greatest achievement but is also the biggest threat to its future. The national motto of “unity makes strength” is an ideal that has proven hard to achieve. The nation’s varying facets were on display throughout.
The day which had opened with the religious was soon combining with the secular as the European anthem was played by the Royal Symphonic Band of the Belgian Guides, followed by a rendition of the Belgian national anthem. The ceremony was led by the Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels Monseigneur André-Joseph Léonard. The service reflected Belgium’s diverse culture and political roles, as did the representatives of its various religions which are constitutionally recognised by the secular state; likewise the organised secular community, whose representatives were also amongst the invited congregation. After the service came the formal abdication of King Albert II, which the monarch had announced to the nation on July 3rd triggering the events of July 21st. At 10.20 a.m Queen Fabiola (King Baudouin’s widow), Princess Astrid and Prince Lorenz, Prince Laurent and Princess Claire arrived in the Throne Room of the Royal Palace, followed a few minutes later by the King and Queen, Crown Prince Philippe and Crown Princess Mathilde. The abdication ceremony began with a speech by King Albert which will be remembered for an unscripted and emotional tribute to his wife: “As for Queen Paola, who constantly supported me in my work during these twenty years, I just want to say thank you . . . and a big kiss.” The gesture was applauded by the hundreds of dignitaries in attendance, whilst a visibly moved Queen Paola held back tears.
The King’s speech was followed by a speech from Prime Minster Elio di Rupo and then the reading of the Deed of Abdication by the Minister for Justice, which was then signed by the King and the witnesses. The ceremony had lasted only forty minutes concluding with the national anthem. The swearing-in of King Philippe took place an hour later, literally across the street from the Royal Palace at the Palais de la Nation, the home of Belgium’s Parliament which lies at one end of Parc de Bruxelles. The ceremony was held before both chambers of the federal parliament at noon. It confirmed the monarchy’s constitutional role in which King Philippe read from article 91 of the constitution: “I swear that I will observe the constitution and laws of the Belgian people, preserve the country’s independence and guarantee its territorial integrity.”
In his acceptance speech King Philippe also confirmed his commitment to continuing his father’s work, which in a nutshell is to preserve the nation’s unity: “I am beginning my reign with the determination to place myself at the service of all Belgians. I shall therefore work in perfect understanding with the government and consistent with the Constitution. Over the years I have been able to build ever-stronger ties with a great many of my fellow citizens. I intend to intensify this dialogue. “The wealth of our country and our institutional system resides notably in the fact that we have turned our diversity into a strength. Each time, we succeed in striking the balance between unity and diversity. Belgium’s strength is precisely its ability to give meaning to our diversity.” Admirable sentiments but ones which also reveal the urgency of Belgium’s national crisis. (Extract from Royalty Magazine Vol. 22/02)