The sixth king of the Belgians, Albert II (born 1934), succeeded to the throne upon the death of his brother, Baudoin, July 31, 1993. He was formally sworn in August 9, 1993.
Belgium found itself unexpectedly with a new king when King Baudoin died on July 31, 1993. Baudoin had no children, and nine days later his younger brother, Albert, took the oath as king of the Belgians (the constitutional title of the Belgian monarch). Albert, born in Brussels on June 6, 1934, to King Leopold III and Queen Astrid, was only three years younger than Baudoin. He did not step aside in favor of his son, Philippe, as had been anticipated; at 33 years of age Philippe was rumored to be still unready for the responsibilities of the monarch.
The throne of Belgium was no longer itself in peril, as it had been under Leopold III because of his disputed role in the surrender of Belgium to the Germans in World War II. After Leopold's abdication in 1950, Baudoin had brought stability but not harmony to a country gripped by a struggle between Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia. At the time of his death Belgium had begun a far-reaching federalization that made the maintenance of Belgian unity as a country questionable. The wave of mourning over Baudoin's passing brought Flemings and Walloons together in support of the monarchy, and there was no support for an anarchist deputy who shouted in favor of a European republic before Albert took his oath. It was thought by some that the rush to full separation into independent states, anticipated for early in the next century, would be halted by the new king's influence and the resurgent commitment to the dynasty.
The extent to which Albert would be able to play the part of mediator and peacemaker remained uncertain, however. As a constitutional monarch, the king of the Belgians may take no independent political action. (When Baudoin, as a devout Catholic, found himself unwilling to sign a law permitting abortion, he withdrew from his office for a day to permit it to go into effect.) The monarch is compelled to be extremely careful in using his influence as a symbol, especially since the reigns of two previous kings, Leopold II and Leopold III, had been marked by bitter and never fully resolved controversy over their policies.
Subtlety, persuasiveness, patience, and imperturbability, as well as deep knowledge and understanding of issues, are required for a king. This is where there was anxiety about whether the new king could effectively carry through the healing and reconciliation for which he pleaded in his speech to the Parliament on taking the throne. His experience, apart from the largely honorary offices bestowed upon him as heir to the throne, was chiefly as an enthusiastic supporter of Belgian business interests abroad. Honorary chairman of the Belgian Office of Foreign Trade since 1962, he was often called "Belgian's traveling salesman." As such he had been known as an affable head of numerous economic missions, with considerable expertise particularly in transportation issues. While leaving the hard work of negotiating to businessmen and economists, he provided the flattering presence of what the British call a "royal." How effective he would be in the hornet's nest of Belgian domestic politics remained to be seen. His obvious desire to preserve Belgian national unity was aided by the fact that he had not taken sides in the Flemish-Walloon conflict.
The serene aura of King Albert II's Belgium was marred in 1996 by a series of unsettling scandals in the region. The murders of several children led to the discovery of a pedophile ring. Investigations surrounding these crimes started a chain reaction which ultimately led to the discovery of excess, corruption, and other serious inadequacies in the nation's system of law enforcement. The king, who has no powers of government, spoke out freely and expressed his outrage on more than one occassion. He called for "profound change" in the wake of nationwide demonstrations over the incidents.
On the personal side, King Albert II is an ardent fan of fast motorcycle driving (sometimes halted but not charged by highway police). He is known to enjoy good living, although he was not a member of the international "jet set." Like his predecessors on the throne, he was lucky in his marriage. After a storybook romance, he married an Italian princess, Paola Ruffo di Calabria, in 1959. She became very popular in Belgium, so that Albert was soon dubbed "Paola's husband." They had three children, Philippe, Astrid, and Laurent. In 1984 Princess Astrid married Lorenz, Archduke of Austria-Este. The couple's four children, Amedeo, Maria, Laura, and Luisa Maria, were born in Belgium. Because of uncertainty about Philippe's eventual readiness to follow his father to the throne, there was some speculation that Astrid might become queen, the first in Belgian history.
King Albert II and the members of the royal family take a deep interest in social and humanitarian issues including health care, wildlife, and the environment. These modern royals sponsor a site on the Internet with news and tourist information concerning the Kingdom of Belgium.
At the time of the king's inauguration biographical information was limited to brief press accounts.
Information can be found online at http://belgium.fgov.be. □