King Albert II of Belgium has mothballed his orb, vacating the gilded seat for his eldest son and heir, 53-year-old Prince Philippe, whose general aptitude and fitness for the job lie, by common consent even among Belgian royalists, somewhere south of a root vegetable’s. The thought that his new job might be better entrusted to a beetroot is unlikely to have crossed Philippe’s mind, but then, local royal-watchers suggest, not much does.
The one cast-iron principle of monarchy is that any old nob can do it, and Philippe is duly being propelled into the purple. His official title is ‘King of the Belgians’, perhaps in a bid to corral the two main language groups into one paddock. The Walloons and Flemish each pursue their lives, like moles and cuckoos, largely heedless of the others’ existence, a bit like the ‘unseeing’ of each other by citizens of Ul Qoma and Besźel in China Miéville’s The City & the City. It’s often said – a rusty saw given another outing this week in the BBC coverage of Albert’s abdication – that the monarchy sellotapes the two main bits of the country together; but this is largely balls. For one thing, everyone knows the monarchy is basically a francophone show despite the flailing gestures at bilingualism. Polls repeatedly give significantly higher ratings for the monarchy among French than among Dutch speakers. Even the king’s name, like the national anthem, has to exist in duplicate (Baudouin/Boudewijn), for fear of pissing either community off – presumably Philippe will also style himself Filip or Filippus as a sop to the Flemish.
If there is any cultural glue that keeps the country together, it’s probably chocolate, together with the bafflingly popular vile fruit beers brewed by leisure-rich monks as occupational therapy. Or at least, that’s the positive reason. From a more negative point of view, it’s their inability to decide what would happen in the event of partition to Brussels, like a married couple who don’t divorce because they can’t agree on who’ll get the Dobermann.