Abdication of Beatrix takes Dutch by surprise

Tue, Jan 29, 2013, 00:00

Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, the country’s longest-serving monarch and one of Europe’s most high-profile royals, has announced her abdication in favour of her eldest son, Crown Prince Willem-Alexander (45).

Willem-Alexander – who is married to Princess Maxima and has three daughters, Amalia, Alexia and Ariane – will be crowned king on the same day in the historic Dam Palace in Amsterdam, following a ceremony in the 15th century Nieuwe Kerk next door.

Prime minister Mark Rutte described Queen Beatrix last night as “an icon for the Netherlands”.

Mr Rutte said that Princess Maxima, who was born in Argentina and was granted Dutch citizenship in May 2001, would take the title of “queen”.

Queen Beatrix, who has had a consistently high popularity rating with the Dutch people, turns 75 on Thursday. While there is no requirement on a Dutch monarch to abdicate in favour of the heir apparent, it has been the tradition in the House of Orange-Nassau.

When her mother, Queen Juliana, stepped down on April 30th, 1980, after 32 years on the throne, Beatrix – a lawyer by training, with a particular interest in parliamentary history and constitutional law – succeeded her as queen, at the age of 42.

She was by then married to her often-controversial husband, Prince Claus, and had three children, Willem-Alexander, Johann Friso – who was seriously injured in a skiing accident in Austria last year and remains in a coma in a London hospital – and Constantijn.

TV address

In last night’s surprise television address, which was recorded on Monday and kept a closely guarded secret by the royal household, Queen Beatrix said she would officially step down,also on April 30th, which is the Dutch national holiday to mark her birthday.

She said she had also chosen this year because it marked 200 years of the Dutch monarchy.

She stressed she was taking the decision “not because the office had become a burden” but to allow space for “an emerging generation”.

Despite her advancing age, Beatrix has remained active in public – although there have been many personally difficult moments.

In 2009 a 38-year-old attacker killed eight people when he ploughed his car into crowds watching the queen and members of the royal family taking part in a parade in the eastern town of Apeldoorn, just a few hundred metres from the palace of Het Loo.

Last year was even more difficult for her. As well as seeing her son seriously injured, she also watched while the Dutch monarchy was stripped of its last remaining political power – the entitlement to become actively involved in the formation of coalition governments.

In a low-key vote last March, the minority coalition government of Liberals and Christian Democrats, supported by the fundamentalist Christian Unity party, was overrun by an unlikely coalition of Labour, the Freedom Party, the Socialists, social democrat D66, the Greens, and the animal rights party.

Those in favour of reducing the role of Queen Beatrix and her successors to a purely ceremonial monarchy took 91 of the 150 votes. As a result, the abdication will not provoke constitutional difficulties.

Change in the wind

Speculation that Beatrix was preparing to step down has been rife since last year.

Royal watchers pointed to the fact that retired Labour Party grandee Herman Tjeenk Willink (70), stepped down early in the year as vice-president of the Council of State, where he was the queen’s closest political adviser. At the same time, a close confidant of Crown Prince Willem-Alexander was named director of the queen’s private cabinet, another move that would not have taken place had change not been in the wind.

Former president Mary McAleese paid a state visit to the Netherlands last year and had a clearly friendly rapport with Queen Beatrix. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, is due to make a state visit in April. He may be the last head of state to officially meet her.