By Yves Herman and Christian Levaux
WATERLOO, Belgium (Reuters) - Descendants of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington shook hands at Waterloo on the 200th anniversary of a battle that ended French imperial hegemony over Europe and ushered in a century of fragile peace.
Belgium's king and prime minister, hosting the celebrations, used the occasion on Thursday to hail the European Union, based a few miles away in Brussels, and characterized Waterloo, fought with great loss on June 18, 1815, as a turning point in the development of systems to manage the continent's many states.
In a symbolic gesture, descendants of the French, British, Dutch and German commanders shook hands:- Jean-Christophe Napoleon Bonaparte, a London financier; Arthur Wellesley, son of the current Duke of Wellington; Nikolaus Prince Bluecher, a descendent of the Prussian marshal; and King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, whose ancestor led Wellington's Dutch allies.
"Those who yesterday were enemies have become the closest of allies," said Belgian premier Charles Michel. "It is not so much a battle, it is a reconciliation I want to celebrate today."
King Philippe of the Belgians, whose state was created through the diplomatic system set up in the wake of Waterloo, recalled how the final defeat of a post-revolutionary Napoleonic French empire stretching from Iberia to the Russian frontier led to a "concert of Europe" aimed at settling disputes in peace.
"Today, the European institutions are firmly established in Brussels, a few kilometers from Waterloo," he said. "Certainly, it is not always easy to get along. But it is always better to meet around the negotiating table than on the battlefield."
France sent its ambassador to the ceremony, making it the first major anniversary at the site to be marked by all sides.
A music-and-fireworks spectacular will mark the end of the bicentenary day on Thursday while the coming few days will see re-enactments of the bloody summer Sunday 200 years ago when tens of thousands of men died on the field.
(Writing by Alastair Macdonald, Editing by Angus MacSwan)