There was an interesting article written about King Phil last year which I was rereading and might explain some of the sensible decisions he and Mathilde have made (and remind us of how low expectations were for his reign)https://www.politico.eu/a...matter-flanders-wallonia/
Two decades ago, Herman Liebaers, then the “grand marshal” in charge of the royal court, said in an interview about Philippe that “he just can’t do it.”
In the years before his father’s abdication handed him the crown, Philippe’s rigid public appearances were roundly mocked. After he criticized the far-right Vlaams Belang party in 2004, fears mounted over a “king with a mission.” Philippe said in an interview that Vlaams Belang wanted to destroy Belgium, but that he would make sure this didn’t happen. The interview was controversial, as Belgian royals are not supposed to state political preferences.
As recently as the beginning of the decade, when the 2010 parliamentary election left Belgium without a government for what was then a record-setting 589 days, some politicians admitted privately they were happy Philippe had not ascended to the throne, as they weren’t sure whether he could have handled the situation.
It wasn’t just politicians who had their doubts about the then-crown prince. Belgian media questioned his fitness to govern, and royal observers pointed to his difficult childhood; he was the oldest son of a difficult marriage, and by dint of his position was not permitted to take decisions on his future. King Boudewijn and Queen Fabiola, his uncle and aunt who have no children, took charge of his education after it became clear that Philippe would inherit the throne. He was required to finish high school at a boarding school in Flanders, where he found it difficult to make friends.
“The childless couple Boudewijn and Fabiola have made Philippe into a caricature: the prince without character,” Barend Leyts, now spokesperson for European Council President Charles Michel, wrote in his biography of Philippe.
The Belgian royal family is just like any other family: It has its issues. Philippe’s father, Albert II, made headlines earlier this year when a DNA test confirmed he had fathered the artist Delphine Boël during an extramarital affair, which he had long denied.
The family’s relationship with Philippe’s youngest brother Prince Laurent has also been difficult, especially after the younger royal became embroiled in a controversy over Muammar Gaddafi’s unpaid debts. Earlier this month, Laurent reacted to the toppling of Leopold II’s statues during Black Lives Matter protests by defending his ancestor and claiming the monarch could not be held responsible, as he “never went to Congo.”
So when Philippe ascended to the throne in 2013, Belgium braced for the worst, especially with the country headed for another election in 2014. But his first speech as king proved to be a turning point, earning him praise for speaking with confidence and respect about the sensitivities of both Flanders and Wallonia, the country’s fractious Flemish-speaking and French-speaking regions.
After the 2014 elections, Philippe succeeded fairly quickly in forming a government, though the coalition he helped build was so unprecedented — it had no majority in the French-speaking part of Belgium — that it was at first called the “kamikaze government.”
That success has been mostly attributed to Philippe’s entourage, most notably to his first chief of staff, Frans van Daele. One of Belgium’s most eminent diplomats and the former right-hand-man of European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, van Daele’s experience wrangling EU leaders seemed to prove useful in Belgian politics.
Van Daele declined to take credit. “For years, King Philippe has been underestimated,” he told POLITICO. “His own input was crucial for his successful start. And don’t forget he’s the one who carefully selected his own entourage.”
Philippe’s experience leading economic missions and state visits had allowed him to build an “up-to-date” and wide-ranging network of people to pick from, said Vincent Dujardin, professor of contemporary history at UCLouvain. “Creating a Cabinet is one of the few remaining powers our king has — and he has been very careful to keep a strict balance in terms of political plurality.”
It’s this new team that has burnished Philippe’s once tarnished image. Belgians now see him as a king who is (literally) close to his people, as he cycles the streets of Brussels or flies to Brazil to cheer Belgium’s football team. The media often portrays him as a devoted father, who takes his children to school and calls when he’s abroad. His handlers are also keen to show him as a man of flesh and blood, sweating when he runs a half-marathon in Brussels or breaking the waves as he kitesurfs on the North Sea.
The palace has also tried to shrug off its reputation as a fortified building full of mysteries. Political meetings have been moved from the palace in Laeken in outer Brussels to the palace in the city center, where it’s easier to film handshakes and where citizens can catch a glimpse of the royals.
The palace spokesperson, Rafike Yilmaz — crowned spokesperson of the year by Belgian journalists in the category “behind the scenes” — makes sure reporters are told how to interpret the subtle political messages the king gives in speeches, while at the same time providing details on the queen’s outfits.
The queen, Mathilde, has been crucial for the rising popularity of the royal family. Whereas Philippe can be a little stiff, Mathilde comes across as more accessible, an easy conversationalist capable of making visitors feel welcome and at ease.
“A king is not just head of state, but also head of nation,” van Daele said. “A part of a king’s role is to sympathize with your nation and to gain a sense of trust. His marriage with Queen Mathilde has played a tangible part in that.”