Belgium's Queen Fabiola is facing widespread accusations she is trying to shield some of her fortune from the tax man — a move that is going over very poorly as her people struggle through tough economic times.
The 84-year-old's inheritance plan has been widely seen as a tax dodge on a fortune amassed with taxpayer money.
The Spanish-born Fabiola is the widow of the late King Baudouin, who died in 1993. His brother, King Albert II, is now on the throne.
In a rare rebuke of the Belgian monarchy, Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo told parliament on Thursday that he "shared" the strong emotions the scandal had caused among ordinary citizens. He called the queen's plan to create a private fund to deal with her inheritance ethically flawed even if it was strictly legal.
"Because of the position of Queen Fabiola and the stipend annually provided by parliament, this fund causes ethical problems," he said.
It was the latest in a series of scandals to embroil the Belgian monarchy, one of the few remaining symbols that unite this divided nation of 6.5 million Dutch-speakers Flemings and 4.5 million Francophones.
Di Rupo said the queen had not told the government or the king about her plans, which broke in the media on Wednesday.
While much of Europe wallows in a seemingly endless debt crisis, monarchies are often seen as living in the lap of luxury, feeding off annual public stipends while other families struggle. This makes any unorthodox financial measures seem all the more controversial.
Experts say legal constructions like this private fund would allow the queen to bequeath part of her fortune to relatives like nieces and nephews and to her favorite charity causes without having to pay the regular amount of taxes.
Fabiola, who is childless, insisted in a statement that none of the money granted by the government — almost €1.5 million ($2 million) a year — would be used in the new fund, which would only include her private money. She said she spends the government stipend on "housekeeping, of which the biggest part is staff wages."
Keenly aware of the economic crisis, King Albert II last year pledged to use part of his salary to help pay for the upkeep of his properties.
The queen's tax dispute comes after a Christmas speech by the king that was widely seen as criticizing the biggest political party in Flanders, the right-wing N-VA, which wants to do away with the monarchy and break away from Belgium.