10 years of King Philippe: From unpopular 'wooden man' to steadfast king with solid record

On Friday, 21 July, Belgium's King Philippe will have been on the throne for exactly 10 years. Despite initial doubts about his abilities and his image as a "wooden jack", Philippe has hardly been caught out by a mistake over the past decade.

At the beginning of July 2013, King Albert II suddenly announced that he would abdicate in favour of his son Philippe. When the Royal Palace announced on 3 July 2013 that Albert would address the people that evening, rumours of a possible abdication had been circulating for some time. At 79, Albert was already the oldest monarch in Belgian history. He confirmed the rumours and reported that, after 20 years of rule, his age and health no longer allowed him to hold office. He thus became the first Belgian monarch to abdicate the throne voluntarily.

Throughout the country, doubts about Philippe's abilities had prevailed for years. Despite his successful school career, his image in the public eye was not altogether favourable. In particular, he stood out for lacking tact, having stepped out of line on multiple occasions.

Stiff and awkward

His marriage to Mathilde d'Udekem d'Acoz in 1999 did gain him positive media attention, although he continued to live up to his image of "wooden jack", both publicly and privately. A stiff kiss to his new wife on the royal balcony on their wedding day and the somewhat awkward announcement of the birth of his first daughter - "it's really a little woman" - are etched in the collective memory. Consequently, even before he took office, just under half of Flemings were found to have confidence in Philippe. Wallonia had more faith in his abilities and 66 per cent thought he would make a good king.

The somewhat awkward announcement of the birth of his first daughter - "it's really a little woman" - is etched in collective memory

However, the new king defied expectations and has had an almost flawless track record as monarch so far. For instance, the long feud between Flemish-nationalist party N-VA and the royal house cooled down somewhat, allowing government formation talks to proceed more smoothly.

After the 2019 elections, Philippe even received far-right Vlaams Belang leader Tom Van Grieken - a party which always openly advocated Flemish independence. It was the first time since 1936 that a Belgian head of state had an official meeting with a leader of the far-right party. All party leaders agree that Philippe kept a low profile during those talks.

Increasingly open and modern

Spurred on by his wife, Mathilde, Philippe has become more self-assured in the public domain over the past decade and, in addition to being king, has developed a reputation as a devoted father to his four children.

He is preparing his eldest daughter, crown princess Elisabeth, to succeed him. During Philippe's reign, the rigid image of the palace also changed, opting for a more open and modern way of communication and making an entry on social media.

As king, Philippe also managed to put an end to the painful saga surrounding Delphine Boël, the illegitimate daughter of his father. He invited his half-sister to the palace barely a week after a Brussels court awarded her the title of princess.

Regrets over colonialism

During Philippe's reign, there have been increasing calls for apologies to Congo because of the Belgian colonial regime there. In June 2020, the king wrote a letter to Congolese president Felix Tshisekedi in which he expressed his regret over the misdeeds under the rule of his uncle, king Leopold II. Explicit apologies did not materialise, but Philippe's speech in the Congolese capital, condemning the "racist" colonial regime "based on exploitation and domination", is seen as a historic milestone.

"He tries to connect people and always puts Belgium first. As a result, he has become increasingly popular in recent years"

After 10 years on the throne, criticism of king Philippe has remained minimal. He briefly came under fire when it emerged that he was on holiday when the terror level was raised to level 4 in Belgium following the Paris attacks. His 2018 Christmas speech was also criticised, because the king expressed concern about climate issues but featured a burning fireplace in the background.

"Philippe has had an almost flawless track record," says royalty expert and author Joëlle Vanden Houden, adding that "he tries to connect people and always puts Belgium first. As a result, he has become increasingly popular in recent years."

Albert II health concerns

Meanwhile, worries have subsided over the health of Philippe's father, after the 89-year-old Albert was admitted to hospital with dehydration symptoms last Tuesday. Albert's rehabilitation is going well and will continue in the hospital at least until Monday, the Royal Palace reported.

Last Tuesday, it had been reported that the former monarch might return home two days later, but it was decided on Wednesday that he should remain in observation at least until Monday. Albert is expected to leave hospital on Wednesday.




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