BRUSSELS (AP) — In these times of financial crisis, the question gripping Belgium is whether 923,000 euros ($1.2 million) a year is enough to make a retired king happy.
Belgium's King Albert II stepped down last summer, and saw his annual public funding slashed from 11.5 million euros ($15.4 million). Newspapers said on Thursday the 79-year-old former monarch sent out feelers for more taxpayer money to meet his bills, and the government was quick to refuse.
Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, a red-blooded socialist of poor immigrant background, told parliament that "the government does not intend to change a comma" in the royal stipend plan, eliciting warm applause from government parties and opposition alike.
Belgium's royal family has been involved in several financial scandals over the past few years and its standing when it comes to money matters has been undermined. The Le Soir paper based its story on Albert's reported desires on unnamed sources and the royal palace did not return calls seeking comment or confirmation.
Though royal matters were once treated with solemnity in parliament, Thursday's session had a sense of Barnum about it, as one legislator after another salted their speeches with barbs to argue against any increase.
"Can you imagine, three vacation homes — one in Paris, one in Rome, and one on the French Riviera —and you have to do the upkeep," said lawmaker Jean-Marie Dedecker. "And now they put you on miserable pay of 923,000 euros. And you have to get there yourself without an army plane taking you there. How bad is that, prime minister?"
Many of the objections relayed in parliament had their roots in the difficult economic conditions in Belgium. Though the country has escaped the brunt of the European debt crisis, the government has had to take its own tough austerity measures to get its public finances into shape and that medicine has hit living standards.
And that makes for little sympathy for a wealthy royal. "During such a crisis, he gets three times more than President Obama," said Barbara Pas of the anti-monarchy Flemish Interest Party. (In fact, the U.S. president is paid $400,000 a year.)
The Belgian government already reduced its financial support to the royal family this year after rebuking Albert's sister-in-law, Queen Fabiola, for setting up a special inheritance system widely seen as a tax dodge.
"I don't have the habit of living like a king, but I assume what he gets is sufficient," vice premier Alexander De Croo told VRT network. Albert was succeeded as Belgium's king by his son Philippe on July 21.
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