Astrid’s first economic mission

  • This weekend, Princess Astrid will travel with over 250 business leaders at the head of her first foreign economic mission.
  • She (still) has not been named to the role for the long term, and doesn’t have the Honorary President title.
  • In fact, King Philippe will be holding her hand.

Since his ascension to the throne, and after 70 similar trips over 20 years, Philippe no longer presides over the four annual missions organized by the Agency for Foreign Commerce (ACE), the Regions or the Foreign Affairs ministry. From now on, at the king’s request his sister has taken on this role. The request is “proof of his confidence,” members of her entourage say. It has raised several questions.

1. Is Astrid committed over the long term? July’s decision was that the princess would represent the king and preside in his place for the first two 2013 missions: the one she is leading beginning on Sunday, to Angola and South Africa, and the one planned for India at the end of November.

And then? Then… nothing has been firmly decided. The decision will be made in the kern with the agreement of the Regions and the Palace. The kern has not yet made any statements. It does confirm that its intention is to ask Astrid to continue to lead the missions (whom else could they ask?), and she sees these first two trips as a test before making her own decision.

But why was this role entrusted to Astrid only on a temporary basis? This summer, the three Regions accepted the emergency solution proposed by the federal government and the Palace, but the Flemish minister-president has demanded further discussion. He re-states that he wants to reduce the number of missions, but “this request for re-opening the discussion has not yet been relayed to the Agency’s board of directors,” according to ACE’s deputy director general, Fabienne L’Hoost.

2. Is it legal? The N-VA raised the question at the beginning of the week: Can Astrid legally preside over economic missions? Flemish nationalists say no, because the 2002 “law” creating the ACE stated that the agency’s Honorary President would direct the missions. Philippe maintains the agency’s Honorary Presidency, and clearly has no intention of giving it up. So now what?

The Foreign Affairs minister has asked his department for a legal report. The ACE has already provided three arguments to refute the N-VA. Fabienne L’Hoost says, “One: the N-VA refers to the December 2002 ‘law’ but it’s just a cooperation agreement. Two: article 3 of this text specifies that ‘the Agency is authorized to decide and organize commercial missions,’ but it does not stipulate that it must be led by the Honorary President. On September 30, the board of directors confirmed that the princess will lead the next two missions, and there were no objections from the Flemish government’s representatives. Three: the king, in his role as Honorary President, has said that Astrid will represent him during these missions. There is, therefore, no legal concern, even from Flemish companies, which will be in the majority. They will represent 58% of the participants on the Angola-South Africa mission and 52% for India.”

3. How has Astrid reacted? The princess, who never refuses to be of service to the Palace, accepted the king’s request to preside over the two missions this fall. She still may be feeling some frustration.

At the start Astrid may not necessarily have understood or appreciated that she was being asked to “fill in” for two missions without the title of Honorary President. With no assurance of maintaining this economic responsibility, she is combining her traditional activities, including social and medical, and these economic missions. If she were given the title, she would no doubt reduce her “health” activities.

However, after discussion with the king’s right hand, we imagine that Astrid might provide the explanation: “If Philippe remains Honorary President, he avoids a problem: changing the Honorary President would require a decision by the Agency’s board of directors, which would provoke a debate on the usefulness of having a royal Honorary President. The Flemish government or N-VA headquarter is likely to contest the question.” 

In any case Astrid has carefully prepared for her first mission, knowing that it’s not one of her areas of expertise. She studied files, met with business people and ACE managers. She needs to make a good impression because there is significant pressure during these trips, especially from the media: 27 journalists will accompany her!

4. Who is supporting the princess? When she accepted her brother’s request, Astrid wanted to have an “office” to help her with this economic role, but one was not provided. In Africa she will be supported by two of the king’s staff members, proof that he is holding her hand: his deputy cabinet chief and diplomatic advisor Pierre Cartuyvels, and his economic advisor, Geneviève Renaux. On the other hand Astrid’s long-time advisor, diplomat Pol Ponjaert, who up until now had always traveled abroad with her, will not be on the trip.

Even the ACE’s website still talks about the role of “His Royal Highness Prince Philippe” in its missions…

MARTINE DUBUISSON

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