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How does one negotiate with little bargaining power?

Updated: Apr 6, 2023

A mediation of over a year and a half. Several mediators. Two estranged spouses in the Romanian royal family. A child custody agreement and more. By June 1928, when the Court of Appeal of Bucharest pronounced their divorce, Prince Carol of Romania and Princess Helen of Greece and Denmark had been married for 7 years and their son, Michael, was 6 years old. For the last of those two years, Prince Carol had been living abroad with Elena Lupescu, the former wife of an army officer.

In January 1926, the Parliament of Romania had approved Prince Carol's renounciation of his right to the throne. He had also renounced his parental authority which the father alone exercised over the minor child during marriage (article 327 of the Romanian 1923 Civil Code). The death of reigning King Ferdinand in 1927 would catapult the young Michael into the public eye. The year before his parents were officially divorced, Michael became the king of Romania, a nation of 17.4 million[1], the sixth of the world’s oil leading producers.

Romanian politics of the day seemed a puzzle game where players genuinely searched for the missing pieces that some evil character had hidden in an impossible place. Confronted with the Great Depression, the regency council instituted by the Parliament, composed of Carol's brother, the Patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church and the president of the Supreme Court, proved to be ineffective. Carol forced his own conditions for his return on a government that looked to him with hope. He de-throned his son and became king in 1930. Caught between the public pressure on Carol to reconcile with his former wife and his mistress’ secret return to Romania, Carol's relationship with Helen continued to deteriorate.

Once Carol was back in Romania, the question of Michael’s residence, education, health and, most importantly, contact with his mother all became sources for parental conflict. Michael had studied with a private teacher throughout primary school. His father preferred an inclusive education and would soon create a secondary school class in the royal palace where Michael and nine other students selected from different social strata would study together with the best teachers in the country[2]. The two parents disagreed on other issues, for example Michael's presence at his father's side for the 10th of May parade as the 10-year-old was recovering after diphtheria[3]. As late as July 1931, an exchange of letters between the two parents still conveyed a mutual desire to discuss amicably[4]. In her letter, Helen cited Michael’s education and future, while Carol promised to inform Helen about Michael during her absence from the country, and agreed to discuss issues of common interest upon her return, if circumstances would allow that.

Article 283 of the Romanian 1923 Civil Code mentioned that if parents divorced, no matter which parent had custody of the children, their father and mother had the right to care for them and the duty to maintain and bring them up according to their abilities. However, the Statute of the Royal House granted its head, King Carol, the full authority to make all parental decisions concerning the heir to the throne[5], a 180-degree change compared to 1926. Carol and Helen were not only of different financial power and status, but they did not have equal rights as parents either. Once king, Carol took Michael to live with him at the Royal Palace[6], while his mother was allowed to see her son every day.

Helen's bargaining power was thus quite limited. More than aware of this, King George V of England advised Helen in December 1930 to plan an exit from Romania under acceptable conditions[7]. Family members at home and abroad were enrolled to serve as mediators to obtain a fair financial settlement for Princess Helen and a stable parental agreement. King Alexander of Yugoslavia, the husband of Carol’s sister Maria, took up this mission in May 1931, probably during his meeting with Carol on a "motorboat on the Danube"[8] The message he took back to Princess Helen seems to have been that the more she would travel abroad, the better[9].

Princess Elisabeta, the oldest of Carol’s sisters, mediated the private agreement signed in February 1932[10]. The financial issues seemed to have been less complex than the issue of Helen’s contact with Michael. Helen accepted to reside abroad where she would receive an annual allowance from the civil list and a lump sum to buy a property. Michael was allowed to visit her for 6 weeks every year. Michael’s mother had the right to come to Romania up to four months a year, but her arrivals and departures had to be approved by the king. This would bring a lot of uncertainty: Helen’s first stay in Romania after the February agreement was cut short after 5 weeks and she had to leave the country.

The 6-week-holiday abroad was put to the test in September of the same year when Michael visited London with his mother[11]. Carol had forbidden any press coverage or photographs of Michael’s trip. This was an impossible task for the mother of a famous child in the country where the freedom of the press had been established in 1695. Moreover, the two parents had very different approaches to how an 11-year-old child should be dressed. His father favoured short trousers, while his mother, an elegant woman, considered that Michael was old enough to wear long trousers. After an invitation for tea at Buckingham Palace with Michael wearing long trousers, an angry Carol cut short Michael’s holidays abroad. Desperate that she would lose her son, Helen gave an interview to the Daily Mail in an attempt to gain the support of British public opinion. There followed a wave of bad press for Carol throughout Europe.

Why would a minor incident cause such anger and swift action? Research shows that angry decision-makers are impatient to make decisions and do not carefully consider the consequences of their actions. Anger is associated with a sense of certainty and optimism that these decision-makers have about the future. Any emotion, anger included, comprises a trigger, bodily sensations, a perception of meaning and a tendency to act. We can only speculate that in addition to his orders not being observed, the wearing of long trousers might have carried a different meaning for Carol. An heir to the throne in short trousers is still a child on holidays with his mother. But this heir to the throne had been the King of Romania only a couple of years before.

Carol loved uniforms and parades, was designing army uniforms himself and was wearing them regularly. Even three years later, photos taken during Michael’s school trip through central Romania would show him and his classmates wearing the short trousers of the Boy Scout uniform[12]. At official events during the same school trip, such as the distribution of aid at Pietroșani, Michael would wear long white trousers, a jacket and a dark beret. To Carol, Michael's long trousers might have transformed a private invitation to tea with the king of Great Britain, a relative of both Carol and Helen, into an official appointment. Yet, Carol was back on Romania's throne and as historian Simona Preda notes, seemed more than determined to keep his former wife away from public life[13].

The February agreement on parental responsibility proved lacking. Its provisions were not entirely clear and did not cover all the aspects that mattered to the parties. The agreement had to be amended on 1 November 1932 and this time the mediator was none other than Iuliu Maniu[14], the Prime-Minister of Romania.

Under the revised provisions[15], Michael’s mother could come to Romania, but both the king and the government needed to consent to it. The agreement included a conditional provision: should Helen spend less than six months in the country, she would have the right to host Michael for two-months visits in Switzerland. Visits to other countries had to be approved by the king and the government. In practice, Michael would visit his mother for two months every year at her residence in Florence.

Why did this reformed agreement more or less hold, as notes Kings Michael's official biographer, Ivor Porter[16]? First, this time the process involved a rather impartial mediator, the Prime-Minister of Romania. Iuliu Maniu was a man of principles. He had welcomed Carol's return to Romania, but at the same time insisted that Carol resume his marriage to Helen. His signature on the November agreement brought with it the full enforcing authority of the Romanian Government, similarly to a family court enforcing a private mediation agreement nowadays. Second, the condition included in the agreement transformed Carol’s problem into Helen’s problem. Carol seemed decided to finish with the negative press that stemmed from Helen’s visits and wanted her far from Romania. By complying with the condition, Princess Helen would secure contact with her child during the summer months. She would only return to Romania as Queen Mother after King Carol’s abdication in 1940 in favour of his 19-year-old son.

Post Scriptum. The participants to the mediation described here could not or would not meet in person. The mediators discussed issues with each party or their lawyers separately. Shuttle mediation between parties is common in international relations, and sometimes also in local mediation between neighbours in conflict. Nowadays participants in family mediation meet in the mediator's office. The mediators might have been neither independent, nor neutral by today's standards, but they all relied on confidentiality–the principle that makes any mediation possible.

Post Post Scriptum. In August 1944, young King Michael overthrew the military government and brought Romania into the Allied camp of the Second World War. He opposed communists' raise to power, but a Soviet-controlled government forced him to abdicate in December 1947. The king and the queen mother had to leave Romania and lived modest lives in exile. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, amid domestic political strife, King Michael travelled to Romania and used his influence to speed up the country’s accession to NATO and the EU. He died at 96 at his Swiss home and was buried in Romania in a state funeral. Carol married Elena Lupescu in 1947 and died in 1953 in Estoril, on the Portuguese Riviera.

Photo: Crown Prince Michael (third from the left) in 1933 visiting the Monument to the Unknown Hero with his classmates.


[3] Simona Preda, Regina-mamă Elena. Mariajul și despărțirea de Carol al II-lea, Corint Books, 2018, p. 169;

[4] Simona Preda, idem, pp. 176-177

[5] Idem, p. 152

[6] Idem, p. 196

[7] Ivor Porter, Michael of Romania – The King and the Country, Sutton Publishing, 2005, p.37


[9] Ivor Porter, idem, p. 38.

[10] Idem, p. 39

[11] Idem p. 39; Simona Preda, idem, p. 184


[13] Simona Preda, idem, p. 165

[15] Simona Preda, idem, pp. 195-197

[16] Ivor Porter, idem, p. 41

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