The new King of Belgium has provoked the ire of road safety campaigners – and Flemish separatists – by signing off on 11 pardons for people convicted of traffic offences.
Nearly five months into the job and King Philippe had so far largely escaped censure by the Flemish nationalist party, the N-VA, which advocates the transition to an independent republic for the Dutch-speaking north of Belgium.
But when it emerged this week Philippe had invoked the royal pardon nearly a dozen times for driving offences since his July coronation, the reaction was swift and outraged.
Theo Francken, an N-VA mayor of a village near Leuven, called it “a custom dating from the middle ages or Roman Empire when the emperor could decide a person’s fate by raising or lowering his thumb,” the Flanders Today website reported.
Road safety campaigners were also disappointed, saying such a move undermined their work. “It gives the wrong signal,” Karin Genoe, of the Belgian Institute for Road Safety, told Belgian broadcaster VRT. “We make a lot of effort to raise awareness and enforce appropriate punishments in traffic accidents.”
The exact details of the traffic violations were not revealed, although Belgian media reported they did not involve incidents where victims were injured or killed.
But in a nation marked by mistrust and tension between the French-speaking south and Dutch-speaking north, the actions of the monarchy – one of the few institutions which bridge the language divide – are scrutinised by separatist parties. A Palace spokeswoman told The Independent the pardons were put forward by the Justice Department, and the King was simply fulfilling his constitutional obligations by signing them.
The King also faced other concerns after it emerged Belgian newspaper, Le Dernière Heure, received a letter from a neo-Nazi sympathiser threatening to kidnap Princess Elisabeth, 12, who is next in line to the throne. The anonymous author had railed against immigration, VRT reported. Police were taking the threat seriously.