Oranges and Lemons: The Royal Houses of Europe
By Eric EllisApril 30, 2013
Europe still maintains a dozen monarchies. As a new king settles into the Dutch throne, can the cash-strapped continent afford to support these expensive spongers any longer?
TODAY in Amsterdam, the Dutch royal family will perform something their ennobled Spanish cousins further south in Europe aren’t much inclined to publicly do these days – their job.
Admittedly, today’s majestic jollies at Amsterdam’s 15th century church, Nieuwe Kerk, are unavoidable if one’s privileged station is to bestride the Dutch kingdom, or the Koninkrijk der Nederlanden as it is formally known.
For it’s the day when leadership of the House of Oranje-Nassau, Europe’s most expensive to maintain, is invested with a new monarch. The throne will be passed from the matronly septuagenarian Queen Beatrix to her eldest son Willem-Alexander, a florid 46-year-old whom the Dutch like to call ‘Prince Pils’ because of his fondness for fun.
In keeping with this reputation, the event promises to be a massive party for most of the populace. Their new king’s investiture has been arranged to coincide with Koninginnedag, the annual Queen’s Day holiday when Nederlanders contract a 24-hour virus of oranjegekte. That is, they adorn most everything and particularly themselves with all things orange, the royal hue; it is the one time when the Dutch pocket their determined egalitarianism to hail their elite, and with much national gusto.
Indeed, if the investiture has a soundtrack, it’s not so much the ‘imbecilic’ official ditty, Koningslied (the ‘King’s Song’) – penned for the occasion but so unpopular it’s desperately in search of His Majesty’s first royal pardon – but rather the relentless doof-doof booming from party boats navigating Amsterdam’s canal zone.
Willem-Alexander’s is just the third accession to the throne in more than 120 years – Dutch royals having shown themselves to be impressively durable.
And despite the cost of maintaining this reigning family – almost €40 million annually – they are hugely popular, enjoying nearly 90 per cent approval by one measure. And among them, few are more popular than the comely Maxima, the new king’s blonde and big-haired wife, soon to be Queen.
Rather like Australian-born Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, Maxima has the advantage of being a novel foreigner, a professional woman – an investment banker before that calling became toxic – and one who mastered a relatively obscure language with chirpy acuity.
But unlike Our Mary of Hobart and her Scottish academic father, Maxima bears the inconvenience of being Argentinian, and of having a politician for a padre whose hands, if not dripping with blood, had certainly clasped a few that were when he was a minister in one of the world’s most brutal military dictatorships.
Maxima’s father, 85-year-old Jorge Zorreguieta, wasn’t welcome at the Nieuwe Kerk when his daughter married Prince Pils in 2002, and there’ll be no place for him today either when she becomes Queen.
It helps their popularity ratings that Dutch royals do appropriate things and that they aren’t politicians – for whom the Nederlanders reserve great derision. Rather, Willem-Alexander is said to be passionate, if that’s the right word, about water management, a big deal for a new king when around a fifth of his realm is below sea level.
It’s also expected that he will nod toward republican demands that the perks Dutch taxpayers provide their royals be slashed. In February, the Dutch economy slipped back into recession; a gentle one compared to the Club Med basket cases, but these are austere times in a country that has come to expect plenty.
Republicans want Willem to slash his pay by 80 per cent. He won’t go that far, but it’s expected he’ll do the royal thing and make concessions in that general direction.
The Dutch royals are not seen as so terribly out of touch as many modern monarchs. Maxima is a persuasive campaigner for immigrant, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights; while Beatrix has often deployed her lacquered hairdo and handbag to useful effect in crafting government coalitions – and all the better, she believes, if they don’t include the divisive Islamophobe Geert Wilders with whom she is engaged in near open warfare. And there is genuine affection among the Dutch for the plight of Beatrix’s middle son, Prince Friso, now in his 15th month of a coma after being buried in an avalanche while skiing in Austria last year. It was Friso’s accident that is said to have hastened Beatrix’s abdication after 33 years as monarch.
But Dutch royal powers have nonetheless been eroded. Parliament last year voted to deprive the monarch of any role in forming governments and a wedge of lefty MPs will not make the customary pledge of loyalty at today’s ceremony.
Though there's been much belt tightening among the ordinary citizens of crisis-wracked Europe, the continent still maintains a dozen monarchies. Some monarchies, such as Liechtenstein, are rich, but many, such as Spain, are struggling. And that’s led some to question their worth. Can a Europe contemplating an ever tighter union afford, or even need, royals?
From Scotland to Spain, from Norway to The Netherlands, as Europe struggles through a state of near-permanent economic crisis, tradition-confronting events like the Utøya massacre and a continent-wide backlash against immigration, Eurotrash royals are learning, painfully, to pull in their collective head and do what taxpayers pay them to do – play national symbol and dollop out liberal portions of cultural comfort food.
In Brussels, the Belgian royals are feeling the strain of political impulses that threaten to divide the country between the Dutch-speaking Flemish and Francophone Walloons. Likewise in The Netherlands, where Wilders is waging a pitched battle with the royals over who best articulates ‘Dutchness’: is it Wilders’ dog-whistling anti-immigrant, anti-European populism or Beatrix’s entreaties for Dutch tolerance and multi-culturalism?
In Oslo, Norway’s King Harald V has won new admirers for the sincerity of his family’s compassion in the wake of the Breivik massacre, and for his reiteration of Norway’s liberal and transparent values. In Copenhagen, it has taken the arrival of the Australian princess to revitalise a dysfunctional royal family widely derided for its fatal tendency to produce trashy toyboys and bad marriages. Likewise, Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf recently cited “precisely the strength of the monarchy that the king can be an impartial and uniting symbol… [for] new Swedish citizens”.
But deeper European political integration threatens to render the continent’s royals as quaint museum pieces with no power or status, titular or otherwise. Some institutions, such as Britain’s Windsors, have responded with uncharacteristic nimbleness and pragmatism in reminding their subjects they’re still around, by being actively dutiful, or by marrying commoners – baby bumps on bland princesses help here.
It also helps the British and Dutch royals that their kingdoms are not Spain.
Spain, Europe’s fifth biggest economy, is doing its best to fast become its sixth. More than one in four Spaniards are out of work, near one-in-two for under-25s. And with Catalonia poised to vote for independence, there’s a very real prospect that the Spanish kingdom could break up. Re-installed by a dictator in the mid-1970s, Spain’s royals are discovering the hard way that being la familia real is no longer all fashionable vacations and soft-focus features in ¡Hola! Magazine. Indeed, its rare to see a Spanish royal much anywhere these days except in the scandal sheets.
“If there was a league table of European royal popularity, the Spanish royal family would be wooden-spooners,” says Scottish academic Professor Neil Blain of Stirling University, who in 2003 co-authored a book on the European royals, Media, Monarchy and Power.
Last year, King Juan Carlos disgusted Spaniards by tootling off to Botswana on a €50,000 safari – a trip that became a public-relations blunder por excelencia.
While on holiday, the 74-year-old king suffered a fall and had to undergo hip-replacement surgery when he returned. That required explanation, and La Casa Real provided only limited detail, spinning it with the aim of generating sympathy for his plight.
But details leaked from Africa that he had been on a hunting trip, an elephant-hunting trip moreover, and with pictures to boot, of Juan Carlos in hunting vest and rifle, proudly smiling beside the dead elephants and buffaloes he’d bagged.
If an expensive foreign jaunt wasn’t a good look for a royal in these austere times, when Brussels – and Germany – are demanding that Europe’s ‘garlic belt’ ingest some harsh economic medicine, then having a King who is, incidentally, the honorary head of your country’s World Wildlife Fund hunting pachyderm could only add national insult and ridicule to his injuries.
Never mind the titillation surrounding the ‘mystery blonde’ – Juan Carlos’s companion in Botswana – who was identified as Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, a 47-year-old German-Danish multi-divorcee. Amidst claims she’s been socially trading off her Zarzuela Palace connections, she’s now being portrayed as part Wallis Warfield Simpson, part Sarah Ferguson, part Caroline of Monaco.
Juan Carlos has form in this area, so the usually royally biddable Spanish media has also gone big-game hunting. It’s an open secret in Spain that Juan Carlos’s 50-year marriage to the Greek royal princess, Sofia, is a convenient sham. Spain has been titillated by a trashy bestseller, La Soledad de la Reina, The Solitude of The Queen, published last year, which documented the King’s alleged habitual infidelity, saying that he even once made a play for the late Princess Diana.
The House of Bourbon is still reeling from the King’s links to a financial scandal involving Iñaki Urdangarin, his favourite son-in-law. Urdangarin is married to the youngest royal princess, Cristina, and is, significantly, a Basque who lives in Catalonia, an embodiment of the two regions of Spain that have most vigorously agitated for separation, sometimes to the point – in the Basque region at least – of near civil war.
But the spivvy Urdangarin has outlived his national usefulness. He’s suspected of embezzling public funds, and the King has been embroiled, via documents that indicate he has vouched for his son-in-law in a series of dodgy deals.
A recent opinion poll showed republican support in Spain at 37 per cent – triple what it was 16 years ago – which suggests there’ll be no more African holidays for the lothario king, nor sympathy for his offspring any time soon. Far better during these dark European days to be a Dutch king, docile and deferential.