The wedding celebrations were, perhaps, all the more welcome given the political troubles in the months before the marriage. 1960 had been marked, first of all, by the Congo crisis. From January to February, meetings took place between Belgian government representatives and Congolese politicians. The colony was officially granted independence, and, on June 30, King Baudouin attended the hand-over of power in Kinshasa. The same year, Belgium suffered grave economic, social, and political crises. In Flanders, unemployment rates were high; in Wallonia, the closure of the coal mines provoked severe upheavals. The Belgian government developed a relief program to meet the specific needs of the different regions. The plan was submitted to Parliament in November. Despite these efforts, unrest continued. At the beginning of December, a general strike paralyzed the country. Violence broke out in Wallonia, where the strike was political, aiming at federal reform of Belgium's constitutional structure. Relations between Flanders and Wallonia had always been fragile; this incident, and subsequent events, increasingly amplified tensions.
In 1962, a linguistic frontier was drawn between the Dutch-speaking and French-speaking regions. In 1963, laws confirmed the principle of unilingualism in regional administration and education. This principle gave rise to severe crises. In 1966, for example, hostility erupted at the University of Leuven, in Flanders. Flemish circles objected to the presence of a French-speaking section of the university, and agitated for its transfer to Wallonia (Walen buiten! or "Walloons out!" was one slogan during the upheavals). The transfer, to the French-speaking town of Ottignies, soon took place. More and more, Belgians were divided into two hostile camps.
A trend towards "federalism" began. Power increasingly devolved, away from the national government, upon the regions. In 1970, Prime Minister Gaston Eyskens announced that the unitary Belgian state was obsolete and that the regions required greater autonomy. The same year, the Flemish and Walloon communities acquired "cultural autonomy," or the right to exclusive control over cultural affairs in their areas. In 1980, the regions gained sweeping powers over local economy and employment, land use, housing, town and country planning, the environment, and more. In 1988-1989, the prerogatives of the regions and linguistic communities were further increased. The communities acquired control over education and health policy; the regions obtained power over public works, and the right to sole supervision of local authorities. Regional tax-raising powers were continually increased. From 1991-1993, constitutional revisions and special legislation officially redefined Belgium as a "federal state," consisting of communities and regions. The latter's rights and responsibilities, especially in foreign relations, were further expanded.
Although federalism has worked well in other countries ( eg. the United States, Germany), here it served the purposes of extremists on both sides of the ethnolinguistic divide. Disregarding the Belgians' shared history and political traditions, Flemish and Walloon separatists would continually denigrate their country as an "artificial state," inciting hatred between the communities. The growth of regional power at the expense of the central authority would feed the process of national disintegration.
Maintaining national unity and harmony became a grave concern for King Baudouin. He constantly reiterated these themes in his speeches. In 1976, for example, he recalled Belgium's motto: "unity makes for strength," and promoted a constructive form of federalism:
When the founders of an independent Belgium chose that motto, they were well aware of our diversity, and of the necessity to maintain cohesion. They considered that the regions, with their legitimate autonomy, constituted complementary parts of a whole, and should not be envious adversaries. They knew that federating was uniting with acceptance of differences, and not disbanding through confrontation.
Yet, despite his popularity, (and, surely, the support of many Belgians for his views), Baudouin's ability to halt destructive trends was severely limited. The Belgian kings' freedom of action had always been gravely restricted by the constitution, and the monarchy had been further undermined by the post-war "Royal Question." Leopold III was, in practice, the last King of the Belgians to substantially impact the political process. His interventions, during the 1930's, in the politicians' sphere, have been cited as the underlying reason for his downfall. In an article published, in September, 1993, in La Libre Belgique, entitled "The political world did not forgive the King his concern for the common good and his great political morality," Thomas Maury wrote of Leopold: "The [politicians] did not accept that the King intervened too closely in their sphere of action, and that he reminded them, with insistence and intransigence, of their duties towards the country. And they certainly made him feel it, after the war." This tragic legacy definitively enforced the idea that Belgian kings must "reign but not rule." Baudouin's political role was largely restricted to that of a discreet counselor.
Nonetheless, Baudouin accomplished a great deal of good. One royal initiative, meriting special attention, is the King Baudouin Foundation. Established in 1976, this organization aims at improving the living conditions of the Belgian people. It undertakes projects and publishes documents relating to fields such as poverty, social exclusion, the environment, the national artistic and architectural heritage, and education.
Baudouin's politically weak position was highlighted by the abortion crisis in 1990. The Belgian legislature had approved a bill legalizing abortion, and the King was expected to sign it into law. Royal assent to laws passed by parliament had long been viewed as a mere formality, and, in fact, as a regal duty. Yet, Baudouin's religious faith and moral principles forbad him to approve the abortion law. Refusal to sign would provoke a storm of accusations of "undemocratic" behavior, and would risk unleashing a campaign to force his abdication and abolish the monarchy. In this situation, Baudouin's high principles, integrity, and courage shone through. Despite the political dangers of his action, he refused his signature, citing conscientious objections. The government found an expedient of dubious legality by declaring the King "incapable of reigning" for a day ( although "inability to reign" was supposed to refer to physical incapacity, not crises of conscience), assuming regal powers, and ratifying the law. The episode revealed the monarch's inability to reverse the moral trends of a society which had increasingly departed from its Catholic traditions.
Only three years after this tragic episode, King Baudouin I died, very suddenly, of a heart attack, while on vacation, with Queen Fabiola, in Spain. He was deeply mourned by the Belgian people; despite the political controversies of his reign, he had retained a high degree of popularity. His successor was his younger brother, Albert, who now reigns as King Albert II.