Brussels - Albert II, king of a sharply divided Belgium, called on its people on Saturday to stick together as he bade them a formal farewell ahead of his abdication after 20 years on the throne.
The king said his first wish was that Belgium, split between a Flemish-speaking north and a French south, "retains its cohesion" and builds on gains made over the past 40 years.
"The country has been transformed ... in a peaceful and democratic way ... into a Federal state whose parts enjoy a large degree of autonomy," Albert said in a television broadcast on the eve of Belgium's national day.
The latest reforms will only increase this autonomy, said the king, aged 79.
With a difficult history and an independent state only since 1830, Belgium has struggled to accommodate the competing demands of its main Flemish and French communities.
The drive towards autonomy has eased some tensions but there remain very strong separatist elements, especially in the Flemish north, which want even greater freedom to the point where some fear for the future of a single Belgium in elections due next year.
Singled out for praise
The king said that at a time of rapid change, it was important that political power be exercised at the most appropriate and most effective level.
He singled out for praise those politicians who were ready for "constructive compromise" and had shown "a remarkable sense of the common interest" during difficult moments.
He gave no names but on two occasions, the broadcast carried clips of current Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo who, with the king's support, took office in 2011 after polls about 18 months earlier had failed to produce a government.
"I am convinced that maintaining the cohesion of our Federal state is vital, not only for our quality of life together, which requires dialogue, but also so as to preserve the well-being of all," he said.
Amid some uncertainty whether Crown Prince Philippe is ready to take the throne, Albert said that as both king and a father, his "very dear wish" was that the people actively support the new monarch and his popular wife Mathilde.
Prince Philippe, aged 53, said just after the king announced his abdication early this month that he was "well aware" of his responsibilities and would make a "wholehearted" effort to meet them.
Sober, appropriate address
King Albert II also called on Belgians to keep faith in Europe despite the continuing economic crisis, saying that many of today's problems could only be tackled at European level.
A commitment to Europe was the best way to defend core values such as "social diversity, democracy, tolerance and solidarity, the protection of the weak".
Belgium, home to around 11 million people at the crossroads of Europe, was one of the first nations to join the forerunner of the European Union and hosts many of the EU's major institutions.
Pundits said the king's address was sober and appropriate, being neither populist or divisive as the attention now turns to Sunday's abdication and the swearing in of Philippe.
On Saturday, the tone appeared muted in Brussels with some houses flying the national flag but it is expected that the formal ceremonies Sunday will attract very large crowds.
The royal family will attend a thanksgiving mass early on Sunday before Albert formally abdicates at 0830 GMT before an invited audience of some 250 dignitaries at the palace.
No foreign guests
At 1000 GMT, Prince Philippe dressed in full military uniform will take his oath of office in the country's three main languages - French, Flemish and German - before Parliament.
In the first row of guests will be his wife Mathilde and their four young children, among them Elisabeth who will become heir to the crown after the government ended the automatic right of the first male child to take the throne.
The rest of the day will feature royal appearances around Brussels to salute the crowds before a late fireworks display.
There will be no foreign guests since Belgian custom is for there to be none, Prime Minister Di Rupo's spokesperson said, with the whole cost put at a modest €600 000 - about the same spent on a normal national day.