King Philippe I has become Belgium’s seventh monarch during a national holiday following the abdication of his father Albert.
After he took the oath at the parliament, filled with representatives of the six million Dutch-speaking Flemings and 4.5 million Francophones, Philippe insisted “the wealth of our nation and our institutions consists in turning our diversity into a strength.”
The ceremony capped a day of transition which started when Philippe’s father, 79-year-old Albert, signed away his rights as the kingdom’s largely ceremonial ruler at the royal palace in the presence of Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo.
Less than two hours later, the nation got a new king when Philippe, 53, pledged to abide by Belgium’s laws and constitution.
While crowds of well-wishers cheered the royal family’s every move, one Flemish separatist group, the Flemish Interest party, boycotted the parliamentary ceremony, while the legislature’s biggest party, the N-VA New Flemish Alliance, sent only a limited delegation without its leader, Bart De Wever.
“We are full-blooded democrats and the purest form of democracy is the republic,” said Jan Jambon, the parliamentary leader of the party, which has surged to become the main opposition party seeking Flemish independence through transition.
But there was enough unity on show when the new royal couple appeared at the palace’s balcony cheered by some 10,000 well-wishers braving the relentless sun and 30C (86F) heat.
Flanked by huge bouquets of white roses, lilies and gerbera, King Philippe kissed new Queen Mathilde’s hand and got a peck on the cheek in return.
President Barack Obama sent the new king congratulations, said American National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.
“The President also sends his heartfelt appreciation to King Albert II for his warmth, service, and leadership as he steps down after nearly 20 years,” the statement said. “Belgium is a valued friend of the United States, and the President looks forward to continuing to deepen this bond in the years to come.”
Unlike a disturbance during the oath-taking by King Albert 20 years ago, when one legislator shouted “Long live the European Republic,” Sunday’s ceremony in the packed legislature was flawless.
“Belgium is modernising itself and it gives me joy,” Albert said.
Under crystal chandeliers in a gilded hall at the royal palace, Prime Minister Di Rupo called Albert “a great head of state” and told the outgoing king: “You are closing an important page in the history of our country.”
Albert announced his abdication plans less than three weeks ago, so there was little time to turn the occasion into a huge international event. No foreign royals were at the ceremony. Since the royal transition coincides with Belgium’s national day celebrations, a military parade had already been planned.
Philippe will face a tough task in the coming months. The fractious nation, divided by language, holds parliamentary elections in June 2014 amid calls for even more autonomy for the language groups.
And perhaps even less power for the king himself. Up to now, the king is still involved in government formation talks by picking go-betweens and brokers to set up multi-party coalitions reaching across the linguistic divide.
After the last elections in 2010, it took a record 541 days before a government could be formed amid bickering about how much more power should be sapped from the central state to profit the separate language groups. Then, as likely next year, the N-VA will play a key role.
Unlike his five predecessors, Albert tried to avoid politics as much as possible and Philippe is expected to do likewise.
Philippe has been groomed for the job as a leader of foreign trade delegations over the past two decades.
“He is a very wise person, a person who is very well prepared,” said EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, who attended the ceremony. “He knows the politics of Belgium and Europe very well.”