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Brussels - For a long time, Queen Fabiola of Belgium seemed above reproach - lauded for her religious fervour, praised for her social deeds and sympathised with after a series of miscarriages left her without a direct descendant.
All that ended this week as the frail 84-year-old - the widow of King Baudouin, who died in 1993 and was succeeded by his brother, Albert II - was assailed for having set up a private foundation that would dole out her wealth to nieces and nephews upon her death.
The news caught almost everyone by surprise, with the Royal Palace saying it hadn't even been informed of the move.
Outraged politicians equated it to tax evasion, noting that the creation of the Fons Pereos foundation will allow Fabiola's heirs to avoid an 80-per-cent inheritance tax.
Others charged that public funds were being misappropriated, since Fabiola lives on an allowance granted to her and other Belgian royals by the state - in her case amounting to €1,4 million (about R16 million) a year.
Legal experts quickly pointed out that Fabiola's allowance is not constitutionally mandated, but rather was a “courtesy” extended after the death of Baudoin - from whom she also got a sizeable inheritance.
“Queen of all Belgians for almost 53 years, it is indecent that public means allocated to her to take on this function could only serve ... family and religious interests,” Health Minister Laurette Onkelinx wrote on her Facebook page on Thursday.
“The gap is immense between the efforts asked of the population because of the economic crisis and the fiscal practices of Queen Fabiola,” the Socialist politician added.
Several European monarchies have come under fire for being out of touch during the debt crisis that has gripped Europe for almost three years and led to belt-tightening and worsening social conditions.
For example, King Juan Carlos of Spain last year was widely criticised after going on a no-expense-spared trip to hunt elephants in Botswana, which led to such outrage that the monarch had to offer the nation an unprecedented apology.
Belgian Prime Minister Eliot di Rupo swiftly waded into the debate over Fabiola before it could escalate, proposing Thursday to accelerate reforms of the royal allowance system that have been promised since the 1990s to create limits and transparence.
Di Rupo made the suggestion during a parliamentary debate that saw lawmakers from practically every political stripe express indignation.
“I understand your sentiment and I share it,” the Socialist leader said, speaking of an “ethical problem,” according to a report by the Belga news agency.
But Fabiola and her attorneys fought back, arguing that there had been a misunderstanding.
The queen said she uses her allowance exclusively “for the expenses of my home” in Stuyvenberg Castle.
The money for the foundation would come from the sale of furniture and paintings that she inherited from paternal relatives during the two World Wars, Fabiola said in a statement distributed to Belgian media by her attorney.
“I will put the money from the sale of these goods (in the foundation) since I myself do not have children,” she noted.
The foundation could then give financial aid to nieces and nephews of Fabiola and Baudoin; their descendants - if they stem from “a Catholic marriage” - and surviving spouses; the “devoted people who served” the royal couple; and the foundation's administrators.
Those qualifying for the support could only receive it “for a limited time if (they) are confronted with serious physical, material, psychological and/or moral” difficulties, the foundation's statutes say.
Aid could also exceptionally be given for short medical trips to “deserving” people with close ties to the foundation.
The organisation additionally lists as goals the promotion of Baudoin and Fabiola's works and memory, support to Baudoin's Astrida foundation, and help for Catholic institutions.
Fabiola's attorney, Jean Van Rossum, told Belga she was “affected” by the scandal. The only thing the queen had sought to do was “help” nieces and nephews “who would be in need,” he said, insisting that the foundation was “completely lawful.”
But the newspaper Het Nieuwsblad called for the queen to do more than justify her actions.
“To repent is a Catholic virtue. The very religious queen can do only one thing to reconcile with the country: give up the foundation,” it wrote in its editorial pages. - Sapa-dpa