Early in the year 1831, the National Congress, which laid the foundations of the state, gave Belgium a Constitution. It organized the new state as a constitutional parliamentary monarchy. The next problem for the Congress was to find an individual to fulfil the role of King of the Belgians. It selected Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
This was the beginning of the Belgian dynasty, the first in these provinces to be chosen directly by the elected representatives of the nation. Within this constitutional framework, and working in liaison with the other organs of power, the successive occupants of the throne have gradually built up a body of monarchical practice.
The media refer fairly frequently to the King’s external activities and to the audiences he grants to many Belgian and foreign personalities. The King also makes occasional speeches. But the King does not grant interviews, he does not discuss politics in public and he does not enter into debate with other public figures. In the political field at any rate, his actions are always discreet and difficult to discern. This may seem surprising at a time when everything is a matter for public debate. It could mislead the public as to the real bearing of the sovereign’s actions and as to the very nature of the monarchic function. The problem stems from two distinct causes. The first is the very nature of a constitutional and parliamentary monarchy. The second is to be found in the manner in which public life in Belgium has evolved since 1830.
As two of its members explained, the Congress which drew up the Constitution of 1831 wanted a republican monarchy, or a constitutional sovereign with republican institutions. To this end, they adopted the principle of ministerial responsibility. Under this rule, none of the King’s acts are effective unless they are covered by a Minister, who assumes responsibility for them, the King himself being absolved from such responsibility. As regards the exercising of both legislative power (tabling and enacting of legislation) and of executive power, combined action by the King and his Ministers is needed to produce effects.
The second reason why it is difficult for the public to have an accurate perception of the King’s political role lies in the way in which power in general and the public decision-making centres in particular have evolved since 1830.
The gradual introduction of universal suffrage and the political, economic and social changes which have occurred have caused a rebalancing of power within the official institutions and have increased the importance of de facto powers.
Indeed, there has been a shift of power from Parliament to the executive. Then, within the executive, there has been some reduction in the role of the King as compared to the Prime Minister and the Ministers.
Within this increasingly complex set-up, the role of each of the constitutional forces appears to have become less visible. This applies particularly to the role of the monarch.
In fact, the King is the symbol of the unity and permanence of the nation and the moderator of political life, a very subtle and discreet role.