Saturday, 27 January 2007

The return of Machiavelli's prince

When Niccolo Machiavelli wrote his masterwork Il Principe, he didn't refer to a prince, but to a powerful and ruthless ruler who could force the union of Italy. Machiavelli's philosophical work was a tribute to Cesare Borgia, who conquered the Romagna, a territory in North-Italy consisting of several city-states, in 1501. Borgia was known, and in his time even feared, for his ruthless and cruel way of ruling the state. He wasn't reluctant at all to commit murder, rape and robbery in order to get his goal.

It is often said that history exists of an accumulation of recurrent phenomenons (for example: when Louis XVI of France was executed, France became a republic. However, when Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself emperor, France became a kingdom again.) And even these days we can establish that recurrent phenomenons are on the move. But the worce thing is that nowadays Belgium is the place to see those phenomenons. And the phenomenon is, o shiver and shake, the fact that Machiavelli's prince has returned!

Ironically, it is also literally a prince. Our Belgian crown prince Philippe.

So what has prince Philippe done that makes him a cruel absolutist? Well, last Wednesday King Albert II gave his New Year's speech to the political, judicial, diplomatic and journalistic elite of the Belgian kingdom. After the king's speech, the audience gathered into one of the rooms of the royal palace where a reception was organised. It was there that prince Philippe got involved in a discussion with two Flemish journalists. The prince told them that if they keep up saying and writing "negative stories" about him on television or in the newspaper, that they weren't welcome anymore at the royal palace. As such, we now know the prince's stance on freedom of press.

When prince Philippe refers to "negative stories", he means the reports that were announced in the news about his role during a trade mission in South Africa in March 2006. But it's not the journalists's fault that prince Philippe got a bad reputation, as it were the entrepreneurs themselves (who accompanied the prince) that said that the prince wasn't interested in the whole business there. It was even often said that the presence of a crown prince mostly opens doors in doing business, but that this one is better at closing doors. So why does the prince blame the journalists now, when the only person who's got to blame is... himself!

It's not the first time that crown prince Philippe makes clear his opinion when it's not needed at all. In 2004, when Philippe was on another trade mission in China, he announced this: "In our country there are people, parties such as Vlaams Belang, who are against Belgium and who want to destruct our country. I can assure you that they will have to deal with me! I could be very tough!" In February 2005, prince Philippe signed a petition made by the Belgian Federation of Enterprises (VBO), which was very critical for the Belgian government.

These are three examples - in no more than two years - that show that Philippe doesn't really know what a crown prince is. As Belgium is (theoretically) a constitutional monarchy, the head of state is supposed to take a neutral stance on political issues in order not to disturb political decision making. In this case, the head of state himself - which is still king Albert - hasn't done anything wrong at all, but the crown prince - who can succeed to the throne at any time - has. And this time the prince hasn't made a political opinion, but even behaved as a royalty of the Ancien RĂ©gime, denouncing every principle of freedom of press or freedom of expression. It might be very harmful to our civil liberties - if they still genuinely exist in Belgium - to let prince Philippe inherit the throne.

The day after the crown prince's remarks, a discussion followed in the Belgian Chamber of Representatives. Laurette Onkelinx (Walloon Socialist Party PS), the Belgian vice-prime minister, strongly rejected the prince's behaviour, but nevertheless the mental frontier between Flemings and Walloons in our federal parliament has risen again: while most Flemish deputies agreed that the king's role should be reduced at least to a ceremonial function (nowadays the king still has to sign bills voted by the parliament or government; is the upper commander of the Belgian army; appoints and fires ministers; and so on) , the Walloon parliamentarians state that changes aren't necessary. Hence we can see how Belgium works: both Walloons (more specifically: the Walloon socialist political elite) and the royal palace need Belgium in order to survive, whereas Flanders hasn't any advantage at all of maintaining this kingdom. And as Belgium is historically, institutionally, culturally and economically an artificial country, the defenders of Belgium and its dynasty will use every method - even when democratic rules are neglected - to maintain the system. You see, Machiavelli is alive and kicking!

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