MONACO: Albert II Begins to Make His Mark
Thomas Cromwell

Only the Vatican is a smaller country. But, as with the Vatican, Monaco’s name carries a lot of punch for a small place. Royalty and riches epitomize Monaco, a nation just shy of two square kilometers in area (less than New York’s Central Park) located on France’s glamorous Cote d’Azur, close to the border with Italy.

Monaco is the world’s most densely populated country, but only 8,000 of its 33,000 residents enjoy citizenship, which brings with it free education and health care, guaranteed housing and employment. Getting citizenship is extremely difficult, and very few of the rich and famous who make Monaco their home ever earn it.

But gentle winds of change have been buffeting this tiny European principality for decades. Monaco was put on the world map by Prince Rainier III in the course of 56 years as ruler that ended in April 2005. He made Monaco a modern and glamorous state. Among various achievements, Rainier reduced the role of gambling from some 95 percent of national income to just 3 percent today, by pushing for diversification of the economy into financial services, tourism and a range of other businesses.

Rainier’s son, Albert II, started to make some changes of his own in Monaco when he succeeded his father as ruler. One of his first decisions was to open an embassy in Washington as part of an initiative to make Monaco a more active player in world affairs.

In a recent interview with DiplomaticTraffic.com, Monaco’s first ambassador to Washington, Gilles Noghes, who also represents his country at the United Nations, discussed the reasons for opening an embassy and some of the other initiatives of Prince Albert.

Given the importance of Washington, Prince Albert wanted to establish a formal presence here, the ambassador said. And, in addition to six previously established embassies in Europe, ambassadors at large are now covering China, Japan and India.

This ‘coming out’ of Monaco into the wider world is only the latest step in a centuries-long process of Monaco taking shape as an independent country.

Monaco has been ruled by members of the Grimaldi family since 1297. Ironically, the ambassador noted, the principality would have been a lot larger if its economy had been flourishing earlier.

In 1860 through the Treaty of Turin the surrounding county of Nice was ceded to France, in response to the wishes of residents. Around the same time, the towns of Menton and Roquebrune declared their own independence from Monaco, “to avoid taxes,” the ambassador said.

All of which reduced the size of the principality by 20 times.

In 1918, as part of the Treaty of Versailles, Monaco came under limited French protection. In 1993 Monaco became a member of the United Nations, and in 2002 a revised treaty with France guarantees Monaco’s continued independence. France remains responsible for the country’s defense.

All of which forms a background to Monaco’s current move to establish more of an international presence.

Ambassador Noghes said that Prince Albert wants his country to be a shining example of international cooperation and of responsible treatment of the environment.  

As a tool to implement the second objective, the prince established the Prince Albert Foundation, which is tasked to focus on three primary environmental issues: protecting biodiversity, securing access to potable water and tackling climate change. The Foundation is particularly interested in the two poles and the Mediterranean Sea.

But the prince is no armchair activist. He is the first head of state to have visited the North Pole, and plans to visit the Antarctic as well. His visit to the top of the world commemorated a visit one century earlier by Albert I, a noted oceanographer and explorer who had visited the Pole on a photographic mission. The second visit was designed to show changes in the intervening century, through images. 

Monaco is of course famous as a tax haven. There have been no income taxes for residents since 1865, the ambassador said. Sports stars like Boris Becker and the Beatle’s Ringo Starr have famously made Monaco their home to avoid high tax rates in their native countries.

But there are other reasons to want to live in Monaco. It is extremely stable and safe, the ambassador pointed out. Education and health services are excellent.

“The only real issue we have is space,” the ambassador said.

In the 1960s, Monaco’s response to the space crunch was to build high rises, especially in the Monte Carlo district, home to the famous casino. “After that, we started digging,” the ambassador said.

The rail line to France and Italy was put under ground, and tunneling through the principality’s rocky topography has enabled the street system to be expanded and upgraded.

The third solution was to reclaim land from the sea. In the 80s a whole new area of some 50 acres was added, accommodating a stadium and 10,000 people.

The newest project will see 3m square feet built on three levels, centered on an iconic structure. The uses will be a mix of residential and commercial. Bidding for the project are some of the world’s leading architects, including Norman Foster and Frank Gehry.

Ambassador Noghes noted that Monaco has long had a warm feeling for the United States. The principality was occupied by Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Germany during World War II, and was grateful for America’s role in Europe’s liberation.

Speaking of the 1956 marriage of American actress Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier, the ambassador said: “In the 50s, the positive feelings [for America] after WWII were amplified by the wedding, and have never ceased since.” On the national day, people would fly both the Monaco and US flags.