Europe's monarchies: scandal-ridden but such good fun

In a continent full of grey politicians, royals may matter more than ever

Albert Niboer/DPA/Keystone Press Agency/ Jonas Ekstromer/ Mark Renders/Getty Images

Kings are not born: they are made by artificial hallucination, the playwright George Bernard Shaw once said. Well, on the face of it, the illusion is over for Europe’s monarchies, as scandals buffet the continent’s thrones. It’s been a rough patch. Two years ago, Luxembourg’s parliament effectively neutered the powers of its monarch, Grand Duke Henri, by stripping him of his right to block legislation after the deeply Catholic head of state refused to approve a bill that allowed euthanasia and assisted suicide. Then, last October, cash-strapped Belgians were infuriated to discover that their king, Albert II, had avoided paying sales tax on his new luxury yacht, because it is a “military vessel.” And in what the Telegraph called “the row that has turned the monarchy-loving public against the royals,” Crown Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands was raked over the coals by media for his plans to build a luxury villa, part of an exclusive resort, in the desperately poor African nation of Mozambique. He abandoned it only after the prime minister, too, was dragged into the mess. This year’s big contretemps however, came out of what is every monarchist’s dream event: a royal nuptial. On June 19, Crown Princess Victoria wed Daniel Westling in an heir-worthy wedding that culminated in a romantic royal barge ride to the palace in Stockholm, where they were met by a glittering array of royalty from Europe and abroad. The choreographed spectacle, though, was more than matched by the grumbling over the cost of the elaborate event—the government picked up half of the US$2.5-million tab. (The bride’s father, King Carl XVI Gustaf, paid the rest.) The extent of Swedes’ unhappiness was clear in a pre-marriage poll by the University of Gothenburg: support for the monarchy had dropped to 56 per cent, down 12 percentage points since 2003. And the country’s nascent republican movement nearly tripled in a year, albeit to a modest 7,300 members, leading it to dream of a pan-European movement to ditch the continent’s eight remaining monarchies in Britain, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Spain and Norway (10 if the statelets of Monaco and Liechtenstein are included). The Swedish backlash, though, offers a surprising clue as to why neither the public nor politicians are throwing dust cloths over Europe’s thrones just yet. Asked why the royals were down in the polls, Joakim Nergelius, a constitutional law professor at Örebro University, suggests that one major problem was the groom. “He came from an ordinary Swedish family,” Nergelius says. “There is nothing special [about] him. He’s not extremely talented, so he’s too boring and people think it makes the monarchy less exciting.” The problem, in other words, was that in egalitarian Sweden, Westling, a gym owner and personal trainer, wasn’t aristocratic enough—not even with a new wardrobe and haircut, training in the crucial art of small talk and a fancy title, duke of Västergötland. Sweden may not be alone in harbouring a secret fairy-tale royal fantasy. In fact, says Nergelius, Europe may need its royals now more than ever. The continent is currently full of fractious coalition governments dominated by grey-haired politicians with personalities to match. And integration within the European Union has meant a whole new layer of faceless political operatives and bureaucrats. The grand spectacle that is royalty comes with foibles and scandals, but it isn’t boring and has the added bonus of being seen to operate in the stratosphere above petty politics. “The monarchy becomes a little bit more popular and a little bit more interesting because it is a symbol of national unity and national traditions,” Nergelius explains. That might not always be enough to save it. Vernon Bogdanor, a professor of government at Oxford University and the author of The Monarchy and the Constitution, notes that “the argument for a monarch is that it isn’t a politician who could be divisive, but someone who can represent the whole country.” But what if the country doesn’t want to be a country? Belgium’s King Albert II has tried to keep the nation together by pushing and prodding politicians from the state’s two increasingly divided and antagonistic ethnic communities into coalition governments. “He’s the only Belgian,” Bogdanor comments wryly. Everyone else is a Fleming or a Walloon. But now, as politicians on both sides slowly abandon the idea of a united Belgium, the royal family could end up without a country of its own. The throne may likewise be in danger in Spain, where King Juan Carlos I of Spain is seen as a popular defender of democracy—he stared down a military coup attempt in 1981—but it is commonly said that Spaniards are “Juancarlists” rather than monarchists. They like this king, which doesn’t bode well for his heir, Felipe. Broadly speaking, the monarchies most imperilled are those where the fairy dust is wearing off the crowns. People expect a certain Disneyesque happily-ever-after story from royalty. When brides don’t conform to that image, there’s trouble. Catholic Spain’s crown princess is, gasp, a divorcée (yes, this is still an issue), while her counterpart in the Netherlands is the daughter of an Argentine junta cabinet minister—daddy was banned from the wedding. And while Prince Albert of Monaco’s new fiancée is scandal-free, he isn’t, having fathered two illegitimate children with two different women. (Whatever their fortunes may have been at one time, duds can be fatal to dynastic fortunes in today’s fast-paced world.) Or consider Norway’s embattled royals. Like Belgium’s, or the restored Spanish royal family, Norway’s monarchy is relatively young. When the Nordic state got its independence from Sweden in 1905, it went king shopping and picked up Prince Carl of Denmark, a son-in-law of Britain’s Edward VII. As recently as the late 1980s, when beloved Olav V was on the throne, public approval was close to 100 per cent, says Carl-Erik Grimstad, a deputy private secretary to Harald V in the early ’90s. Now it’s 64 per cent. A big reason for the decline came when Crown Prince Haakon announced in 2000 that he wanted to marry Mette-Marit Høiby, an unmarried mother whose previous boyfriend had been convicted of drug possession. That was too much even for liberal Norway to handle. Public opinion plummeted and has never recovered. Grimstad believes the monarchy will be toppled either by scandal or low popularity within the next 50 years. In sharp contrast is nearby Denmark. The popularity of its statuesque sovereign, Margrethe II, is above the 80 per cent level. People like royals to act royal, but not too royal, and the queen has figured out how to successfully walk that tightrope. Her dynasty is ancient—traced back to Gorm the Old and his son Harald I Bluetooth—and the sovereign can wear a crushing amount of historic jewelry. But at the same time the artistic 70-year-old (she illustrated a Lord of the Rings edition, designed sets and costumes for the 2009 film The Wild Swans, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, and designs some of her own clothes) is often seen doing her own shopping in Copenhagen. Just about the only criticism is that she smokes. In the absence of a stately and gracious monarch, obscene wealth may help. Things seem to be going swimmingly in Liechtenstein, where the prince has accumulated more authority over his tiny enclave nestled between Switzerland and Austria. In 2003, Prince Hans-Adam II threatened to decamp to his palace in Austria if he didn’t get more power. Since the billionaire princely family controls the asset management firm LGT Group, the heart of the state’s secretive banking business, the demand was taken seriously. After a bitter battle—which included critics of the prince discovering rotting animals, including a disemboweled cat, on their property—two-thirds of voters gave him the right to dismiss the government, veto bills, announc
e emergency laws and appoint justices. But even in scandal-ridden Sweden, where a majority of parliamentarians oppose the monarchy, the throne seems safe for now. That’s because the public apparently isn’t ready for a change. Certainly having sovereigns hasn’t gotten in the way of any of the usual business. Europe’s remaining democratic monarchies are notable for being amongst the most prosperous and calm in the world. They fight for top position on virtually every index of good behaviour. And presidents—the other alternative—aren’t any cheaper, as even the Swedish Republican Association acknowledges. (No country is nutty enough to adopt the U.S. model of combining ceremonial and political leaders into one person, so not having a monarch means having a president.) In June, Germany got a new head of state. Christian Wulff, a state politician in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, was elected after three bitterly fought ballots. With the title comes the neoclassical behemoth of Bellevue Palace, the venue of all those state dinners, receptions and official tours. The budget: $40 million. Sovereigns, if anything, can be good for the economy. Nergelius, who freely admits he isn’t “a big monarchist,” says, “The monarchy is well known abroad, so it is good commercial advertising for Sweden.” And they’re more fun. “There are many arguments against the monarchy, and sometimes it gets a little bit less popular,” Nergelius comments, “but I don’t think many Swedes would actually have some boring second-rate politician as a president.” King Farouk of Egypt famously prophesied that five royal houses would survive the 20th century: spades, diamonds, clubs, hearts and Windsor. He was wrong, of course. And what may be saving Europe’s monarchies is the question of what might replace them. The cure, after all, could be worse than the disease. Bogdanor likes quoting John Major, the former British PM: “If the answer is more politicians, you’re asking the wrong question.”

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