Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Baudouin I of Belgium: Part II

On December 15, 1960, 9 years after his accession, King Baudouin married the Spanish noblewoman, Doña Fabiola de Mora y Aragon. The wedding was magnificent and the mood in Belgium was enthusiastic. Since the tragic death of Baudouin's mother, Astrid, in 1935, the Belgians had lacked a Queen Consort and they were delighted to welcome one again. Fabiola's personal modesty and charm won her great popularity. By all accounts, the marriage was a collaborative and devoted one. Sadly, however, the royal couple remained childless. As she recalled in a recent interview, the Queen suffered five miscarriages. At one point, rumors circulated that the King was seeking an annulment from the Vatican. This, of course, was nonsense, but it surely added to the royal couple's distress.

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.


MadMonarchist said...

I thought the King showed great wisdom and restraint when he went to the Congo -too bad no one seemed to listen to his words of advice. The divisions in Belgium continues to baffle me. With the growth of the EU and the rapidly rising non-European population in Europe it baffles me that Walloons and Flemings (some of them anyway) still see each other as so different despite so much shared history. King Baudouin set a very good example, which is about all he was able to do and I think his impeccable character did help. If certain monarchs tried to follow his example in refusing royal assent today they would likely face rebellion (politically at least) whereas it seems liks King Baudouin was such an admirable man that no one would stand against him. I tend to focus more on actions than behavior in leaders but whether it is King Baudouin or Queen Elizabeth II, monarchs who live very upright lives do themselves a great service by taking away alot of the "weapons" people would otherwise attack them with. Btw, is it true that King Baudouin had wanted to abdicate his rights and be a priest but was dissuaded because of the recent trauma over Leopold III? I read that somewhere, wasn't sure if it was really true. If so it would prove to be yet another example of how often the best leaders are the most reluctant ones.

May said...

Thank you for your thoughts.

About Baudouin wanting to become a priest, I'm not sure that is true. One book alluded to the story as if it were merely another piece of rumor and misinformation, so I thought perhaps it was false. If I find more information I will post on it.

He certainly did, however, come to the throne reluctantly, and I am sure it continued to seem a burden. To see Belgium go downhill must have been a very painful experience. According to Queen Fabiola, he was extremely worried and spent long periods of his time praying, especially towards the end.

He used to say he only received strength for each day at a time.

Yes, living an upright life is the wise course from many points of view.

May said...

Of course, upright conduct helps but doesn't guarantee you will not be attacked. Consider, for instance, how Marie-Antoinette's reputation was destroyed and distorted beyond recognition.

Flemish Lion said...

As a Flemish Belgian, I will sadly say the he was the last true king of Belgium. The man was a man conviction the move the Parliament made on abortion was wrong, the that's progressives for you. He was a brave man for standing up to them. He was very loved by the Flemish people despite the fact that dutch was not counted as the best. As far as what was said MadMonarchist of not understanding why the Flemish and the Walloons don't get along, being Flemish the answer to that is easy, they don't like us we don't like them, we are under constant fire by them ever encroaching in to our territory and our language, after some time it get the better of anybody. Did you for example you had to all of you bookkeeping in French until the sixties? Or that army officers spoke French to their Flemish troops,who didn't understand them? you think that would make anybodies blood boil and so it did for us we have had enough. I know this is but the top of the iceberg, but to say the least,that's and the money flow out of Flanders to Waloonia is the main reason why we want to split