LONDON — Did Prince William weigh in on the “Brexit” debate just days before a crucial summit in Brussels? Or were his comments misinterpreted in Britain’s charged atmosphere as something more than they were?
These are questions people here are mulling over after the Duke of Cambridge, who rarely speaks out on political matters, gave a speech Tuesday saying that Britain has always been “an outward-looking nation” with “a long and proud tradition of seeking out allies and partners.”
He continued: “In an increasingly turbulent world, our ability to unite in common action with other nations is essential.”
He mentioned the United Nations and NATO, but did not, it should be stressed, mention the words “Europe” or “European Union.”
But observers noted that the prince, who is heir to the heir to the throne, was speaking at a time when the chattering classes are abuzz with talk of an upcoming in/out referendum over Britain’s membership in the European Union. If a deal is sealed in Brussels this week, it’s expected that British Prime Minister David Cameron will announce a date for the referendum — June 23 is the odds-on favorite.
While people wait for the starting gun to officially fire, pundits are poring over signs that might shed light on whether someone is going to campaign to “stay” in or “leave” the European Union, the latter being a position known as “Brexit.”
Trying to deduce how a high profile politician might campaign is one thing. But Britain is a constitutional monarchy, and the royals are expected to remain politically neutral — their public stance on the E.U. referendum is not supposed to be a live question.
The 33-year-old prince made his comments at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, where he presented awards to diplomats.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the high stakes of the referendum, his remarks received widespread coverage on front pages Wednesday:
Some seized on the prince’s comments as proof that the Windsors are Europhiles. William, they say, was effectively winking and nodding to the British public as a way to indicate his support for Britain to stay in the 28-nation bloc.
Rubbish, says the palace, which insists that his comments were not meant to be part of the debate. They say he was simply recognizing the work of British diplomats.
Not everyone was convinced.
Nigel Farage, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party, which wants Britain to sever ties to the bloc, said that William “has been used” by the government and the pro-E.U. establishment.
The anti-monarchy campaign group Republic said “the myth of the non-political monarchy is unravelling and that poses real risks for the royals.”
Not one to mince its words, the Sun newspaper said in an editorial Wednesday that the prince should “stay out of it.”
“Emma Thompson is at least free to speak her mind on politics. Prince William isn’t,” the paper wrote, referring to the British actress who recently said that Britain is a “cake-filled, misery-laden, grey old island” that would be “mad” to leave the bloc. “The palace insists the apparent pro-EU hints in his speech to diplomats were misinterpreted. We’re not convinced,” the paper said.
The Daily Telegraph was also skeptical, arguing in an editorial that his speech would have been “pored over by advisers for any possible signs of support for one side or the other.”
It’s not the first time the royals have been accused of meddling in politics — their words are often carefully combed over for evidence of political leanings.
Just days before the Scottish independence referendum, Queen Elizabeth II told a well-wisher outside a church she was attending in Scotland that Scots should “think very carefully” before they vote — sentiments widely interpreted as supporting the campaign to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom.
But perhaps a bigger question remains: If a royal, even tacitly, backs one side or another, would it even make a difference?