Belgium's King Albert II, who will abdicate later this month, is one of the few remaining European monarchs with real political power

King Albert II is said to be a fan of the British writer Walter Bagehot. In his tome The English Constitution, Bagehot wrote that a sovereign enjoys three prerogatives: the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn. The King of the Belgians, who is due to abdicate on July 20, has evidently kept the book on his bedside table and referred to it every time he has needed to intervene in his country's tortured politics.

Belgium holds the world record for time spent without a government - around a year and a half. King Albert's supporters say a government was finally formed in 2011, only after he made use of his right to warn. He chided politicians for their petty language-based quarrels which, he said, risked tearing the country apart.

But in reality, the 79-year-old has enjoyed more than just three rights. Albert II is in fact one of the few European sovereigns to still enjoy real political power. Like Britain's Queen, he doles out royal titles to the deserving and the obsequious, although Belgium's royal household has a greater say in deciding who makes the list than Elizabeth II.

Like his British counterpart, the signature of Belgium's monarch is still required before any law passed in parliament can enter into force. But when was the last time a British monarch refused to sign? In Belgium, many people remember the king putting his foot down: it was 1990. On grounds of Catholic principle, Albert's predecessor, King Baudouin, refused to give royal assent to an abortion bill, which could only become law after he volunteered to step down for three days.

More important, however, is the Belgian sovereign's role in the formation of a new government. In Britain, the Queen is usually presented with a fait accompli after a general election. She asks the leader of the largest party to lead the country. Barring one of the very rare occasions when a coalition is required, this party also enjoys a majority in parliament.

Moulding Belgium's fractious political parties into a workable government is on the other hand much more difficult. There is almost never an outright winner in any election and some of the biggest parties - such as the Flemish separatists - have refused to cooperate because they would rather see the federal state collapse. The sovereign's role is, therefore, key. It is he who seeks common ground among the many factions via seemingly endless rounds of behind-closed-doors negotiations. It is he who decides when the time is right to entrust a politician with the task of attempting to form a government. The British Queen, by comparison, is very hands off.

Now that Albert II has decided to hand over to his son Philippe - officially on health grounds - the role of the Belgian monarchy is under the spotlight like never before. Some would argue Belgium should follow neighbours on mainland Europe and strip the next sovereign of all remaining powers, as well the generous state handouts. Perhaps, monarchs should in the 21st century do little more than open supermarkets or greet VIPs.

Philippe has been quoted as swearing to do his utmost to keep Belgium together; maintaining territorial integrity is, indeed, one of the Belgian sovereign's duties. If his powers remain intact and if the rise of the Flemish separatists continues, we could be about to witness an old-fashioned fight between republicans and monarchists - possibly one of the last such fights in European history.