King Albert’s youngest son Prince Laurent has become the first senior member of Belgium’s royal family ever to take the stand as a witness in a trial. Twelve former officers and businessmen including one of the prince’s former aides stand accused of embezzling 2.2 million euros from the military.
Testifying in court on Tuesday, Prince Laurent said he was aware funds used to renovate his villa came from the navy, but had no reason to suspect they were illegal. Journalist Jose Masschelin, who brought the case to the public’s attention, says all he did was question the rule of law, adding: “I think it’s a good thing.”
The case has once again raised the question of public funding for the Belgian royal family, one of the pillars of the country’s federal political system. Such scandals threaten to weaken the federation, whose proponents accuse autonomy-seeking Flemmish parties of trying to turn the crisis to their own advantage. The crisis comes as the debate over Belgian unity rages in the country months ahead of a legislative election.
Justice Minister Laurette Onkelinx says it is no surprise that certain parties, particularly in the north, are taking advantage of the trial to question the monarchy and therefore the unity of the country: “It’s already started,” she says, “and will be subject to debate in parliament in the near future.”
The trial has provided a perfect opportunity for critics of the monarchy to question the royal salaries. Prince Laurent, eleventh in line to the throne, receives 275,000 euros a year in taxpayers’ money. An issue which is never far from media attention in Belgium, whose cartoonists have been feasting on the latest scandal. “I think it’s normal that the Crown Prince and King Baudoin’s widow should be paid for their symbolic function at the head of the state,” says Minister-President of Flanders Yves Leterme. “As for the rest, I believe that all men should have a job, be they princes or members of a royal family,” he adds.
So far, the Royal Palace has kept quiet. Under growing pressure, Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt has had to promise a debate on public funding of the royal family once the trial is over.