Articles - September October 2019

No Sign of the Sun Setting on Europe's Monarchies

A Remarkable Survival Story

In June, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, and King Felipe VI of Spain were invested with the Order of the Garter, Britain’s oldest chivalric order at Windsor. Both monarchs, along with their respective spouses, took part in the pomp and splendor of the annual Garter Day, on which the Order’s knights in their regalia, led by Queen Elizabeth, attend a service at St George’s Chapel and then walk in procession to Windsor Castle (these days, the 92-year-old queen rides in an open coach).

The Order was founded in 1348 by King Edward III to honor UK citizens for distinguished public service. However, Garter knighthoods are also sometimes conferred on foreign monarchs.

The Economist magazine recently argued, “if monarchy did not exist, nobody would invent it today.” However, the inclusion of the kings of Spain and the Netherlands in Garter Day was a reminder that the royal House of Windsor is not the only reigning monarchy in 21st century Europe. In fact, it is one of ten, including seven monarchies, a principality, and two duchies.

One third of the population of the European Union lives in states that are monarchies, and at the same time some of the most advanced democracies in the world, including Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands. There are organized groups in every one of the European monarchies that argue that the monarchic system of government is an anachronism that perpetuates exclusion in leadership and is not calculated to achieve good governance. But such groups are a minority; Europe’s crowned sovereigns enjoy national popularity ratings ranging from 60 percent to 80 percent.

A conference on European monarchies organized earlier this year by the Constitution Unit, a research body at University College, London, that studies constitutional change, concluded “monarchy provides stability and continuity in a rapidly globalized world.” But warned that, “despite its high popularity ratings, (monarchy) remains a fragile institution: its survival depends on continuing popular support,” which in turn, must increasingly rely on “celebrity culture and the popularity of the individual monarch: support has to be renewed in each generation.”

A new generation of monarchs has recently ascended the throne: for a variety of reasons changes are foreseen soon in other European royal houses, which makes now a good time to look at the survival mechanism – planned or intuitive – that keeps these ancient institutions consistently acceptable, not to say popular, in countries often associated with otherwise progressive societal structures.

Queen Victoria, who had nine children and 42 grandchildren, supplied spouses to royal houses all over Europe, from Belgium to Czarist Russia. Even today, Europe’s current royals are all related to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, and to each other. But the era of dynastic marital alliances that had its heyday between the two world wars is now a thing of the past, as one European prince and princess after another has married outside the royal circle, and in all but one instance even outside the aristocracy.

Marriage to a “commoner” was not unheard of in Europe, but a rarity. The argument that such a union strengthens the bonds between a monarch and his or her people was not very likely in Danish Crown Prince Frederik’s mind when he met Australian attorney Mary Donaldson in a Sydney bar during the 2000 Summer Olympics in Australia. They were married in 2004, and the Danes have taken to Princess Mary. Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden’s gym instructor, Daniel Westling, ended up at the altar with his royal client. And in the case of Spanish television news caster, journalist, daughter of a taxi-cab driver, and divorcee Letitia Ortiz Rocasolano, a couple of interviews with then Prince Felipe, heir to the Spanish throne, and now King Felipe VI, led to friendship and eventually a royal wedding.

In 2002, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, then the Prince of Orange and heir to the Dutch throne, married Maxima Zorreguieta Cerruti, an Argentinian-born banker working in New York. Norway’s Crown Prince Haakon met Mette-Merit Tjessen Hoiby at a rock festival, and caused raised eyebrows when he moved in with the single mother and her son in downtown Oslo, before she eventually became his wife.
By the time Prince William, second in line to the British throne after his father Prince Charles, married Katherine Middleton in 2011, the trend of marrying commoners had been well established in European monarchies, which may well have made the union more easily acceptable at Buckingham Palace. Seven years later, William’s brother Prince Harry crashed through all the remaining barriers marrying a divorced American television star, Meghan Markle.

As members of the royal family, international diplomacy is on an entirely different platform. Markle, a duchess now that she is married to Prince Harry, is demonstrating some pretty remarkable plenipotentiary skills and talents herself for someone whom has been thrust into an arena where all the rules are unfamiliar.  Recently, she and Prince Harry personally visited the London Stadium where the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox played a game in support of the Invictus Games Foundation. In turn, both teams gave them a baby outfit for Archie. Furthermore, they met Beyonce and Jay-Z at the European Premiere of Disney’s “The Lion King” in London. This marriage has given the proverbial “special relationship” just a bit more significance.

So much like his late mother, Princess Diana, Prince Harry is often representing the royal family in some of the most productive and charitable ways, including his recent visit to the Sheffield Children’s Hospital. He lit up the room with his good-humor and joy-filled personality quickly bringing a smile to those little faces who are confronted daily with physical challenges and life-threatening illnesses.

Another relevant topic and important development is the calculation of some of Europe’s reigning monarchs that stepping aside to make way for a new generation is an effective way of breathing new life into the monarchy. In the past decade, the monarchs of Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium have abdicated in favor of the next in line. Term limits have not been set on how long a king or queen can rule, but abdication is openly discussed – for example, in Sweden and Denmark.

“I don’t want my son to grow old waiting, like Prince Charles.” Is what Spain’s King Juan Carlos has been quoted giving as his reason for quitting the throne. It is also true that the one-time hero of Spain’s return to democracy following the death of the dictator Francisco Franco has slipped in the polls following a series of scandals. But Juan Carlos had a point. Queen Elizabeth is a hale and hearty 93, Prince Charles, who will be 71 in November, is the oldest king-in-waiting in British history, and the British succession is piling up, with Prince William, and his son and daughter, Prince George and Princess Charlotte also in line.
Broadened horizons are another way Europe’s royals adjust to the demands of a changing world. No longer do they live sheltered lives. For example, every new monarch or crown prince or princess (with the exception of the British princes) has attended university in the United States. Princess Victoria graduated from Yale, and then spent time working in her country’s Washington embassy, and at the United Nations in New York. King Felipe earned a master’s degree at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. Denmark’s Prince Frederik spent a year at Harvard; Norwegian Crown Prince Haakon got his BA in political science at Berkeley. King Willem-Alexander took courses at the Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, and King Philippe of Belgium spent what he called “the two best years of my life” at Stanford.

Ironically, what European monarchs don’t do is as much a factor in their continued popularity as what they do, and what they don’t do is interfere in their respective country’s political activity. Nowhere is this transcendence of politics more evident than with Queen Elizabeth II. Aside from one public appeal for unity - to quote a recent example - the queen has steered clear of the current political chaos created by Brexit, and it’s anyone’s guess whether she favors remaining in the European Union or leaving it. Other European royal families share the same constitutionally mandated combination of studied aloofness from political activity and the role of nominally presiding over it as heads of state. Put another way, royal families have survived because some nations find the continuity of monarchy more acceptable to the often messy, periodic exercise of choosing a president.

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