Belgian royal family’s grip on public coffers sparks calls for reforms

My pal Patrick goes through life one mishap at a time, although several have been known to occur on the same day. It has to be said, though, that most of the mishaps are brought about by his chronic absent-mindedness.

A couple of years ago Patrick packed up his travelling bag and drove off to Amsterdam for the huge party that is the Queen’s Day every April 30.

Eager to hit the streets and partake of the many delights Amsterdam has to offer as the Dutch mark the Queen’s official birthday and the anniversary of her coronation, Patrick found a spot in a huge parking lot on the outskirts of town, took public transport into the heart of the city and threw himself headlong into the mass celebrations.

It was well past midnight when he finally decided to take a quick nap in his car before heading back to Brussels. The trouble was that Patrick did not have the slightest clue in which direction lay the parking lot where he had so hurriedly left his car.

With the help of a taxi driver, he finally worked out the direction from which he had entered Amsterdam, found the huge parking lot — and thinking to himself that he would find his car all the quicker — jogged up and down the rows of parked vehicles until he spotted his Belgian number plate.

This year Patrick is taking no chances. He has booked a hotel room in downtown Amsterdam and will be taking the train to the Netherlands for what promises to be the biggest royal bash in more than three decades.

Last Monday, Queen Beatrix announced that come April 30 she would pass the crown to her eldest son, Prince Willem-Alexander, who will become the first male monarch in over a century.

But even as Queen Beatrix was announcing her good news, Belgium’s King Albert was preparing to issue a mea culpa following the public outrage occasioned by news that Queen Fabiola, his sister in-law and wife of the late King Baudoin, was planning to set up an inheritance foundation that would shield much of her considerable fortune from the taxman.

The dowager’s plans did not go down well in country that is facing tough austerity measures and higher taxes.

Queen Fabiola has since renounced her plans and said that she was misunderstood and that the proposed private fund would not have included the 1.5 million euros she receives annually from the public coffers.

The affair has triggered calls for reforms on how the civil list — the annual stipend received by members of the royal household to cover the costs of their ceremonial duties — is attributed, with Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo recently confirming that “effective right from 2013” Queen Fabiola’s stipend would be cut by half a million euros.

While King Albert’s daughter, Princess Astrid, confirmed that she would accept any government decision regarding the 320,000 euros she receives annually, her younger brother, Prince Laurent is less enthusiastic.

The Prince is quoted as saying “if my sister, can afford it, I’m delighted for her, but I cannot,” adding more fuel to the already heated debate.

Referring to the controversy in a speech to government authorities on Tuesday, King Albert said that “the royal family must in all circumstances set the example” adding that “as the head of the royal family, the events of the beginning of the month have pained me and given me a lesson in humility”.

For Pierre Kroll — Belgium’s own Gaddo (editorial cartoonist) — the controversy has been grist to his mill, of course, depicting in one of his strips Prince Laurent at a job centre explaining that he has no work experience apart from being a prince.

In another, Prince Philippe, the heir to the throne, is depicted whispering news of Queen Beatrix’s abdication to his dad even as the King is delivering the aforementioned apology.

Guchu is a Kenyan residing in Brussels