King Albert II of Belgium has announced his abdication, the first time a Belgian monarch has voluntarily stepped down, amid ill health and a court case over his alleged paternity of an illegitimate daughter.
© Reuters
Belgium's King Albert
In an unexpected address to the nation, the king, aged 79, announced that he would formally abdicate in favour of his son, Crown Prince Philippe on July 21, Belgium's national day.

"I am at an age never attained by my predecessors. I have noticed that my age and health no longer allow me to fulfill my job as I should have wished. I would not meet my duties and not honour my view of the royal function if I stuck to my post at all costs," he said.

"It's a question of elementary respect for the institutions and of respect towards you. Following a twenty year reign I am of the opinion that the moment has come to hand the torch on to the next generation."

"I want to tell you now that it was an honour and a joy to devote a large part of my life to the service of this country and its people."

King Albert who has played a critical role in holding Belgium together as a country over the last three years is approaching his 20th anniversary on the throne, after taking over from his brother Baudouin of Belgium who died on 31 July 1993, aged 62.

The king is known to be in ill-health and exhausted after a difficult five years for Belgium where deep divisions between Flemish Dutch-speakers and French-speaking Walloons have pushed the country to the brink of break-up.

As well as playing the difficult role of national mediator, King Albert has faced a number of royal scandals that have damaged the standing of the monarchy, including a current court case brought by an aristocratic artist alleging that she is his illegitimate daughter.

"Queen Paola and I will never forget the ties that have grown between the people and us during the course of the years. Thank you for your confidence, tokens of sympathy and support, sometimes even with a little criticism. We always loved you," he said, in his only acknowledgement of the scandals of recent years.

King Albert II will be the first Belgian monarch to voluntarily relinquish his throne. His father Leopold III, was forced to abdicate in favour of Baudouin, in the aftermath of the Second World War, after controversially remaining as Belgian monarch under Nazi occupation.

Six years after he succeeded his brother, King Albert became embroiled in a major royal scandal when he was alleged to be the father of an illegimate daughter, Delphine Boel, and suffered a major crisis in his marriage with Queen Paola.

The issue of his alleged illegitimate daughter has come to the fore again in recent weeks after Ms Boel opened court proceedings to demand a paternity DNA test of Prince Philippe to prove she is the king's daughter.

In recent months Prince Phillippe has suggested that he is ready to take over the throne, a succession that mirrors the abdication of Holland's Queen Beatrix in favour of her son King Willem-Alexander this spring.

Prince Philippe, 53, is a trained fighter pilot and parachutist with degrees from Trinity College, Oxford and Stanford University. He will take over on the 21 July anniversary of the inauguration of the first Belgian king in 1831. He is married to Belgian-born Princess Mathilde with four children. His daughter Princess Elizabeth, 11, will be the next in line to the throne.

"Prince Philippe is well prepared. He and Princess Mathilde have my entire confidence. The future is in good hands," said King Albert. "So it is with serenity and confidence that I announce I intend to abdicate."

King Albert is known to be disillusioned and upset over Belgium's divisions between northern, Dutch-speaking Flanders has been seeking increasing autonomy at the expense of southern, French-speaking Wallonia.

Many believe the political strife has worn the king out, especially the world record 541 days that he was royal mediator between squabbling communities when Belgium was without a government following elections in 2010 where Flemish republican separatists became the country's largest party.

The abdication will give Prince Philippe, who is not popular in Flanders, time to make his mark as king before difficult national elections in 2014. He will take the oath of allegiance to the Belgian Constitution on the same day as his father's formal abdication before a meeting of both houses of Belgium's parliament.

"The abdication will enable the future king to take on the mantle and to meet political leaders ahead of the elections. Everyone fears a repeat of the 2010-2011 crisis," said Caroline Van Wynsberghe, a political scientist at the Brussels ULB university.

Early this year the Belgian royal family was rocked by scandal over the tax arrangements of Queen Fabiola, 84, who has been paid an annual public stipend of over £1 million since the death of King Baudouin in 1993.

Earlier this month, the government introduced extra taxes and a reduced civil list meaning that only the king, the heir and his or her spouse and also the widow or widower of a deceased monarch will continue to receive money from the state.

A king who abdicates will also receive an allowance. "His decision deserves our admiration. Albert II was not born to be king. But thanks to his enthusiasm, empathy, humour, he became for 20 years fully our king," said Elio Di Rupo, the Belgian prime minister.