Business as usual for Belgium royal handover

King Albert II of Belgium and Queen Paola of Belgium wave from the balcony during a visit of the Belgian Royal couple to Gent on July 17, 2013.

BRUSSELS - As Britons stand still for their royal baby, just across the Channel Belgium farewells a king and ushers in a new monarch to little fuss and fever.

The Windsors have not even had the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha's over for tea during the two-decade reign of King Albert II - which ends Sunday when he abdicates in favour of his oldest son Philippe.

Though largely popular and well respected despite reports of royal infidelity and financial fiddling, the House of Belgium plays a low-profile game.

"I do think the Belgian monarchy is less glamorous," British specialist writer Hugo Vickers told AFP.

"Ah the royal baby," he added when asked about the contrast with the excitement around Kate's baby. "We get another generation in a very popular monarchy.

"We are also an island, so we are insular, and many British people would find it hard to name the European sovereigns. Awful to say but true."

Most Belgians know all about their royals, that Albert and Queen Paola's latest yacht - bought as the crisis kicked off in 2009 - cost 4.6 million euros (S$7.58 million), that they have a Riviera hideaway nearby those owned by Princess Di's brother and Richard Attenborough.

The family fortune has caused a bit of a scandal though not on the scale of reports some months ago that devout dowager queen Fabiola, 85-year-old widow of king Baudouin, was planning to move money from her royal allowance to relatives in Spain, thus avoiding death duties.

Baudouin died childless in 1993, forcing Albert, now 79, to step into the breach.

The fuss over Fabiola's trust fund accelerated moves to reform the state's ties with the monarchy.

Fabiola now will see her annual allowance cut to 450,000 euros from 1.3 million, while new king Philippe, who will be enthroned Sunday, will be the first monarch to have to pay taxes on his 11.5-million-euro allowance.

Such decisions in these times of crisis have provided fresh popular legitimacy to a monarchy that has none of the glitz or glamour of Britain's royal family.

No foreign royalty or dignitaries for instance have been invited to Sunday's celebrations, taking place on Belgian's National Day at a cost comparable to the annual July 21 celebrations.

"It's a shame! No foreign guests, no pretty dresses", said Dutch magazine Royalty.

Days before the celebrations there are few national flags flying, and on Brussels' ancient central square, the popular Grand Place, a souvenir shop admitted to having sold only around 100 "Albert" T-shirts with a heart.

Driving in for a farewell tour this week of one of Belgium's quaintest cities, Ghent, Albert and Paola, 75, were met by a crowd of barely a couple of hundred people, a far cry from the thousands that mobbed the pair and showered them in flowers in the 1960s.

"The monarchy's lost ground, notably among the young, who think they're archaic," Michel Marteau, editor of Sudpresse newspapers, told AFP.

"Most Belgians want to maintain the monarchy but it's not like it was 35 years ago, when 90 per cent of the population were blind followers."

Albert's announcement early this month that he was abdicating on grounds of old age and poor health took the country by surprise. Commentators had expected him to remain on the throne when an old scandal resurfaced this year.

After reports of an illegitimate child in 1999, whom Albert has never recognised, last month Delphine Boel, a 45-year-old sculptor, went to court to win official recognition as his natural daughter.

But apart from Belgium's powerful Flemish separatists, many of whom are anti-royalist republicans, "the royal institution as such is not globally in question", said Martine Dubuisson who covers royal affairs for the daily Le Soir.

The family, she said, has always been discreet.

"Their motto would be 'to live happily, let's live in hiding," she said.