BRUSSELS, Belgium — With the kingdom mired in an interminable political crisis, Belgians might have hoped the monarchy could remain above the fray as a symbol of unity and stability in troubled times. Not so.
The antics of King Albert II’s wayward second son Laurent have plunged the royal family into a scandalous sideshow as an ongoing political soap opera, which has left the country without a fully functioning government for more than nine months, continues unabated.
The royal row erupted last week when reports emerged that Laurent had defied instructions from the government and the king and made an unauthorized visit to Congo, a former Belgian colony that has sensitive relations with its former ruler.
A furious government threatened to discontinue the prince’s 26,000-euro ($37,500) monthly allowance if Laurent did not end his “unacceptable activities and behavior.”
Amid a storm of political and media outrage, Laurent then expanded his freelance diplomatic efforts by wading into the Libyan conflict, seeking to develop ties with a diplomat who had joined the anti-Gaddafi opposition.
This time the debate reached parliament and Prime Minister Yves Leterme announced he was drawing up strict new guidelines for princely behavior. Failure to comply would mean an end to Laurent's stipend, forcing the prince to make a living.
“This is a serious situation,” Leterme told parliament. “The prince’s behavior was risky and foolish.”
The pickle in which the prince finds himself has been a boon to the Flemish nationalist party which surged to become the country’s leading political force in last year’s elections. In the long term, the Flemish National Alliance wants to break up the country, end the monarchy and declare an independent republic in the northern Flanders region.
“The antics of the Laurent cannot cost the taxpayer,” said Theo Francken, a nationalist member of parliament who has introduced a parliamentary bill that would severely curtail state spending on the monarchy.
With his owlish looks and penchant for ill-fitting military uniforms, Laurent has long been a favorite prey for the country’s comedians.
He has previously attracted unwelcome headlines by collecting a succession of speeding fines, in a scandal involving allegations that funds were diverted from the Belgian navy to pay for furniture in his villa outside Brussels, and from questions about his business interests.
The Congo escapade is more serious. The government had warned that his visit could be used for political purposes in the run-up to elections in the African nation. Laurent’s father King Albert II had also told him not to go.
Laurent, 47, insisted on traveling, however, and even met with Congolese President Joseph Kabila. Although Laurent claimed the trip was private to promote environmental causes, media reports said travel and hotel bills had been picked up by Kabila and a Belgian millionaire with extensive business links in Congo.
The Congolese government reacted angrily to the brouhaha, saying the government’s attempts to prevent Laurent from travelling to meet Kabila smacked of paternalism.
Laurent has complained that he’s the victim of media sensationalism and political plotting.
Belgium’s relationship with the monarchy is complex. The royal family was long seen as a rare unifying factor between the country’s 6 million Dutch-speakers and 4 million francophones.
Traditionally affection for the royal family has been stronger among the more conservative voters of Flanders than in French-speaking Wallonia, where politics are dominated by the Socialist Party.
However in recent years, as Flemish voters turn increasingly to the nationalists, French-speaking politicians have become vocal backers of the monarch. Flemish nationalists denounce the monarchy as a remnant of the French-speaking aristocracy that ruled the country in the 19th century with scant regard to the interests of their Flemish citizens.
Laurent's adventure have gone some way to unite both sides of the linguistic divide: French-speakers have been almost as vocal as the Flemish in criticizing his behavior.
“He has privileges but also duties,” said an editorial Friday in the francophone daily Le Soir. “This time there are aggravating circumstances, his conduct detrimental to the monarchy comes at a time of extreme fragility and decay in the Belgian state.”
Laurent is 12th in line to the throne behind his older brother, Crown Prince Philippe, his sister, Princess Astrid, and nine nephews and nieces.