Royal succession in Netherlands reminds us that thrones of monarchy are safe in Europe
Despite widespread pain from austerity, it appears Europeans are in love with blue-blooded families
A mother and her son visit the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam the day after the investiture ceremony of King Willem-Alexander was held in the church. Photograph: Cris Toala Olivares
Nothing like a bit of royal-watching to wash those austerity cobwebs away. This week the people of Europe took a brief pause from the daily grind of debt and the euro zone crisis, and turned their attention to Amsterdam, where Queen Beatrix handed over the mantle to her eldest son Willem-Alexander.
Television channels across Europe were awash with images of the first accession of a male Dutch monarch in over a century , while Brussels was eerily empty, as senior Eurocrats, including European Council head Herman Van Rompuy, made the short trip across the border.
It’s more than 30 years since the Netherlands last witnessed an investiture, that of Queen Beatrix in 1980. While coronations are rare, abdications are even rarer.
Royals tend to stay on – Queen Elizabeth is now into her 62nd year on the throne. But Queen Beatrix, following the example of her mother and grandmother, chose to abdicate, outlining to the nation in January her belief that “the responsibility should now lie in the hands of a new generation”.
Her own investiture 30 years ago was marred by riots, sparked in part by social unrest over housing, in part by hostility towards her marriage to a German diplomat, Claus von Amsberg. His alleged Nazi links were to haunt the couple throughout their marriage.
A 2012 ski accident which left her second son in a coma made global news and incited immense public sympathy. Overall, Willem-Alexander’s accession has been broadly welcomed by the Dutch, who have gradually warmed to Queen Beatrix’s eldest son and his Argentinean wife.
The abdication and accession inevitably throws up questions about the role of monarchy in European society.
Technically, the Dutch royal house is one of the world’s youngest monarchies. The Netherlands has been an independent monarchy since 1815, but the Dutch provinces had been ruled by representatives or stadtholders of the House of Orange-Nassau since the late 16th century.
The history of the Dutch monarchy has of course deep Irish resonances. Having acceded to the British throne to the delight of English Protestants through the Glorious Revolution of 1688, William III defeated the Catholic James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, an event that led to the adoption of the colour orange as one of the most potent symbols of Irish unionism.
This unlikely twist of history, in which the Dutch monarchy became intertwined with the history of Ireland, illustrates the central role played by royal families in the geopolitics of Europe. Marriages, matches and alliances shaped European borders and determined history for centuries.
Nowadays, the concept of royalty seems inherently anachronistic, fundamentally conflicting with the notion of modern democracy. But royalty has proved remarkably resilient. Even as the French Revolution seemed to have sounded the death knell for kingship, the Habsburg Empire, for example, existed until the first World War. Today, 10 European countries are monarchies.
The uncomfortable truth for republicans is that royalty remains popular – almost 78 per cent of the Dutch population supports monarchy. While critics protest that the modern monarch is ineffectual, with limited powers to achieve anything of substance, thatis precisely the point.
The power of the role lies in its apolitical nature. Monarchy’s transition from a primarily executive role to a predominantly symbolic one over the centuries has allowed it to survive into the modern world.
Devoid of the burden of electoral promises and difficult policy choices that bedevil politicians, royals can enjoy broad-based support, while the unlikelihood they will breach their constitutional role means their position is unlikely to be seriously challenged, either by revolution or by politics.
Much of the coverage of King Willem’s accession has focused on public frustration with the costs of maintaining a monarchy. Last year, the Spanish king issued a public apology after it emerged he had attended a lavish hunting trip in Botswana while Spain battled mounting austerity. While not quite of “let them eat cake” proportions, the public outcry that ensued was the nearest in some time that disquiet over the monarchy threatened to spill into anger.
King of austerity
Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, while Dutch republicans point out that the political power of the royal house was curtailed last year, there are no moves to reduce the €40 million bill that the royal family costs the State. It is the most expensive monarchy in Europe – regardless of the country’s championing of austerity.
Despite mumblings of discontent, the position of royalty has never seemed so safe. At a time when public satisfaction with directly elected representatives is at a low, for advocates of democracy this is a cruel irony.