Friday, 8 April 2011

Belgium's rebel prince

The youngest son of Belgian King Albert II is in hot water again after conducting unauthorised diplomatic missions in Africa, including a secret meeting with a leader of the Libyan rebel forces and an audience with the president of Belgium's former colony the Congo, all without any diplomatic oversight. The King had explicitly told him not to go to the Congo.

It's not the first time that Prince Laurent has been in trouble, but it looks like this time he could be facing serious consequences. Even his father, who has defended himin the past, has let it be known that he is displeased with his son's actions. Yesterday Yves Leterme, Belgium's 'caretaker' prime minister while the country has no government, that he will prepare new restrictions on the prince which will mean that if he engages in such behaviour again the government can cut of his annual stipend of €300,000.

The prince, often called the "enfant terrible" by the Belgian press, has usually been in trouble for much more unsavoury things. He's been accused of shirking speed limits, furnishing his palace with outrageously expensive furniture and entering romantic liaisons of a less-than-virtuous nature. On this occasion, he says he was meeting with Congo officials to discuss deforestation.

The situation seems to be degenerating into an all-out family feud. An advisor to Prince Laurent told the press yesterday that all of this is part of a plot to destroy the prince by a new Machiavellian advisor to the king. The king's office said they would not respond to such "delusions". The two men appear to not be speaking. All of this comes at a time when the future of the monarchy, and indeed, the future of Belgium itself, is in question.

Right now many Belgians see the monarchy is the only thing holding the country together, as Belgium has been without an elected government for almost a year now. Negotiations are continuing under the supervision of the king, who is responsible for making some kind of governing coalition out of the messy election results of last June. It is logical to assume that if Belgium split and disappeared as a country, the monarchy would disappear along with it. But does the opposite hold true? If the monarchy disappears, will Belgium disappear as a result?

Such a question is an extra level of complication that Belgians don't need, which is why even with this royal rumble few are openly questioning the monarchy's future. Even though the continued rule of this particular royal family with its gruesome history in Africa can often seem obscene, few here spend much time advocating kicking them out of the palace.

The monarchy may be unpopular with the public, but as long as Belgium continues to exist the monarchy will exist as well. The question of whether or not to get rid of it is one the fractured nation can't afford to ask. But rest assured, if the country does split neither new state will want to take King Albert with them.

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