To the long list of concessions that European monarchs have made to modernity, Belgium is adding another: submitting to a paternity test.
After refusing for months, King Albert II will soon give a DNA sample, his lawyer said this week, in a lawsuit brought by a woman who says she is his daughter, neglected and kept secret for decades.
But King Albert, who abdicated the Belgian throne in 2013, will still fight to conceal the result.
The paternity test could mark a dramatic turn in a lawsuit that has been underway for years, exposing Belgium's secretive royal family to unusual public scrutiny and criticism.
There is more at stake than just recognition. The case could also make the plaintiff, Delphine Boël, 51, an heiress to the king's fortune, which is estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
A court ordered the DNA test six months ago, but King Albert refused to obey, and last week a Brussels judge threatened to fine the king 5,000 euros (NZ$8,500) a day until he submitted.
"His Majesty the King will accept the blood test, now that he is compelled to do so," Guy Hiernaux, a lawyer for King Albert, said Monday. But he would do so "on the condition that the results are kept secret until Belgium's highest court rules on the appeal against the order," Hiernaux said, which could "easily" take several more years.
Belgium is a constitutional monarchy, where governing power rests with the Parliament, much like the systems in Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. The nearly 200-year-old monarchy remains a popular if largely symbolic institution.
The Constitution of Belgium essentially puts the king above the law, saying that he cannot be sued or prosecuted while acting as head of state.
"Almost all modern constitutions do have immunity for the king," said Tom Ginsburg, a professor of international law at the University of Chicago. "Traditionally in monarchies, the rule was that the courts, which were the king's courts, could not exercise jurisdiction over the king."
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But almost six years ago, King Albert ceded the throne to his eldest son, King Philippe, and soon after that, Boël, an artist, filed her lawsuit.
She claims to be the child of an extramarital affair between her aristocratic mother, Baroness Sybille de Selys Longchamps, and the future King Albert, who was then a prince, married to Paola Ruffo di Calabria, an Italian princess with whom he had three children.
As Prince Albert, a second son who was not expected to reign, he enjoyed a life of party-hopping from castles to villas to yachts, and mingling with movie stars, models and fashion designers.
When Boël was born in 1968, the prince privately recognised her as his daughter and cared for her, according to her lawyer.
But things got more complicated in 1993 when his older brother, King Baudouin, died suddenly of heart failure at age 63, leaving no children, and Albert became king. An out-of-wedlock child would have been an embarrassing distraction for a playboy prince, but for a king at that time, it could have been a scandal or even a constitutional crisis.
King Albert phoned Boël and told her "now we cut all ties," said Patrick Weber, a Belgian art historian and royalty watcher who has written several books on the monarchy and knows Boël.
Though King Albert remains popular in Belgium, Boël's story has made her a popular and sympathetic figure as well. Three out of four Belgians support her lawsuit, according to a poll in March by Belgium's largest Francophone newspaper, Le Soir.
"They are both heartbroken," Weber, the royalty watcher, said of the king and Boël. "They haven't spoken in years. Every time someone brings up her name around him he gets angry."
Though the financial arrangements of the royal family are nuanced, experts say that a positive test would put her in line to inherit some part of the family's private fortune. She could also be eligible for an aristocratic title and, at least theoretically, a place in the line of succession to the throne.
It is unclear, though, what would happen if King Albert were to die before the case had been resolved.
Male monarchs have long been known for fathering children outside of marriage, and such stories have been staples of palace intrigue for centuries, but they are rarely handled as publicly as Boël's. Historians say this is the first case of the courts being used to air the private affairs of the Belgian royal family.
King Albert is known as a warm but notoriously stubborn figure.
"This is all so painful to him," said Hiernaux, the king's lawyer. "He's over 80, not in good health. He underwent multiple heart operations. This is very hard to live with. He literally told me: 'It's affecting my health.' "
Written by: Milan Schreuer
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