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Belgian prime minister blasts prince

Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme berated the king's son in front of parliament Thursday, saying Prince Laurent should take government advice on trips in the future or become a mere citizen — without a cushy royal stipend.

The prince, who was not at parliament, was a constant target of legislators during an afternoon of discussions on his long history of controversies and annual subsidies of around euro300,000 ($400,000) a year.

In comparison, President Barack Obama earns $400,000 a year plus travel and entertainment allowances.

When the government usually offers a reprieve of such royal criticism, Leterme piled it on.

Leterme says the prince "disregarded his obligations" by traveling to the former Belgian colony of Congo despite the clear written objections of the government to stay away and having a brief meeting with President Joseph Kabila without any diplomatic oversight.

"The prince has to realize there has to be a crucial balance between his rights and duties," Leterme said with a bluntness, which stood in stark contrast with the decorum the royal family of King Albert II is usually treated with.

"I will have further talks with Prince Laurent in the coming days to remind him of his obligations," Leterme said. "I have no doubt the prince will take my remarks to heart and make a clear choice — either respect that balance or shed his rights."

Prince Laurent's weeklong trip to Congo in the middle of March, officially to study deforestation, was only the latest controversy involving the king's youngest son, widely considered the "enfant terrible" of the family.

For years, 47-year-old Prince Laurent has courted trouble because of his love to drive cars at high speed, his criticism of journalists and even his expensive choice of furniture at home.

Politically, the royal dispute comes at a bad time. When protracted government negotiations between the parties from the 6 million Dutch-speakers and 4.5 million Francophones are questioning the core issues holding the nation together, a royal scandal adds zest to the debate.

Leterme gave a blow-by-blow account of how he persistently tried to dissuade Prince Laurent from traveling to Congo.

"The prince judged to disregard this clear request" to stay away from Congo," Leterme said. "He also did not provide information on his program or the people he would meet."

Those people included President Kabila, with whom, Leterme said, the prince had a brief "greeting." Belgium has long had difficult relations with Congo, making any trip there a test of diplomacy.

But Leterme said the dispute was foremost about royal disobedience. "This has nothing to do with our relations with Congo," he said.

The legislators too centered on the prince and the royal house.

"When are we going to say: 'Boy, this has been enough?' When Mr. Prime Minister, will you take away the stipend," opposition member Jean-Marie Dedecker said.

In times of economic crisis, the lavish funds for taxpayers often come under criticism, especially when royals misbehave.