Welcome to the club of reigning royals

Opinion: Twelve European monarchies survive

Recently printed stamps for the Prince Felipe coronation. Photograph:  Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Recently printed stamps for the Prince Felipe coronation. Photograph: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Sun, Jun 15, 2014, 12:01

When crown prince Felipe is enthroned next Thursday in Madrid to succeed his father King Juan Carlos, he will join the ranks of a perhaps surprisingly long-lasting and vigorous, however anachronistic and undemocratic, international club of reigning monarchs.

Most, like himself, have little power but some significant political influence and act as largely ceremonial heads of state, many playing what their supporters see as important roles unifying their peoples, perhaps most significantly in countries under serious political strain, like Thailand and Jordan.

In Juan Carlos’s case, he is credited with easing the transition to democracy from the era of fascism and Franco. By one not uncontroversial reading of history, that is.

Most monarchs are enormously wealthy – according to the Business Spectator, the king of Thailand and the sultan of Brunei have a combined fortune of €37 billion. Queen Elizabeth has a personal net worth of a mere €370 million as of April 2012, according to the Sunday Times Rich List, while the wealth of the Spanish royal family is treated like a state secret.

Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, king of Saudi Arabia, is worth a reputed €13 billion. One of the 45 sons of the first monarch of that state, he owes his fortune to his country’s ownership of 18 per cent of the world’s oil trade.

‘We’re a firm’

In the The King’s Speech, George VI observes sarcastically to his father: “We’re not a family, we’re a firm.” The House of Windsor is not alone.

Felipe’s accession is also part of a relatively new modern trend of succeeding to abdicating monarchs, and follows similar moves last year in both the Netherlands and Belgium, And, of course, the groundbreaking succession in the Holy See of its new “monarch”, Pope Francis, to a still-living predecessor.

A tally by John Rees, professor of politics in the University of Notre Dame in Australia, shows there are 28 sovereigns across 43 countries in the world (including the 16 sovereign domains of the British monarch). That’s over one-fifth of the UN’s 193 member states. And that does not include local and religious royalty like the influential Zulu king, the patriarchs of the Orthodox churches, or the Aga Khan, Prince Shah Karim Al Husseini, spiritual leader of the worldwide community of Ismaili Shia Muslims, all important international political figures.

Twelve monarchies still survive in Europe, though this includes curiosities such as Andorra – uniquely it is ruled by two sovereigns, the French president, the only monarch in the world to be elected by common citizens(though not those of Andorra) and the bishop of Urgell. Then there’s the Holy See, the tiny principalities of Monaco and Liechtenstein, and Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Sweden.

Liberal democracies

For the most part they are among Europe’s most liberal democracies, unlike the authoritarian, and often very brutal, monarchies of the Middle East, not least Saudi, or the likes of Brunei, whose Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien – “Sultan” to his friends – has recently provoked international protests by supporters of gay rights after his imposition of a harsh form of Sharia law.

In Thailand, whose democracy is regularly punctuated by military coups, aged King Bhumibol Adulyadej, after almost seven decades on the throne, has a semi-divine status, protected from any public criticism by tough and enforced lèse majesté laws. His involvement in politics is supposedly marginal, but his endorsement of the latest coup will guarantee its stability and is a clear sign he favours the opposition.

In the royal democracies the institution remains reasonably popular. Republicanism thrives, particularly at times of succession debates, but is largely a minority viewpoint, probably at its strongest in Australia. In Spain 20,000 people demonstrated after the Juan Carlos abdication demanding the abolition of the monarchy. An El Pais poll shows some 62 per cent favour a referendum on the issue, but a clear majority would vote to retain the institution.

In the Scottish referendum the issue has acquired some salience, with Alex Salmond dragging his largely republican SNP into an Arthur Griffith-like promise that an independent Scotland would share a double-crowned monarch with the UK. Other republican Yes campaigners suggest a referendum would be the first business of a new Scottish parliament.

What is remarkable, however, is the extent to which this quaint institution, the hereditary monarchy, a symbol of privilege in a largely egalitarian world, a redundant, profoundly undemocratic relic of medieval times, still thrives in so many modern societies and in many cases is so important in different ways to their political life.

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