At first glance, the fact that Holland’s Queen Beatrix has abdicated in favor of her son, Prince (now King) Willem-Alexander, may seem insignificant. After all, the Netherlands is a constitutional monarchy where political power rests with the elected government, while the Head of State is purely a figurehead, with no real power.
History shows it’s not as simple as that.
The constitutional monarchies of NW Europe have been the most stable countries in the world since the middle of the 19th century.
These nations are: the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the United Kingdom. The latter has had a stable political system since 1689.
They are as democratic as the United States but avoided the upheavals of neighboring republics, particularly Germany and France. Both of these countries have had checkered histories. In the middle of the nineteenth century Germany was many countries, which were finally united under a Prussian monarch following wars with Austria and then France. Just over 40 years later, World War I led to the demise of the German Empire, to the instability and economic disasters of the Weimar Republic, to Hitler and then division between East and West.
France was even more unstable historically. Following the overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy in 1789, the country had 25 years of turmoil and war, including a brief period as a republic. After Napoleon’s Empire, the Bourbons were restored in 1815 but overthrown again fifteen years later. There then followed another monarchy until 1848, the year of revolution across Europe. A second republic followed for four years, then a second Napoleonic Empire, then war with Prussia in 1870-71, the fall of Napoleon III, who was replaced by the Third Republic, which lasted from 1871-1940, almost seventy years. Hitler’s invasion of France led to the establishment of Vichy France (a part of France whose leader cooperated with the Germans); after which came the Fourth Republic. In 1958, that was replaced by the Fifth Republic, which is still in operation, though there has been talk of its imminent collapse.
If you found that list rather exhausting, realize that all this happened during the same period the United States has been a republic. Though it has to be said that the American republic did have one big upheaval, the Civil War of 1861-65. Since then, the US has enjoyed a stable political system, rare for a republican form of government.
Clearly, when you consider Germany and France, you can see real advantages in the system of constitutional monarchy, which has enabled so many countries to have political stability, except when invaded by Germany in the world wars.
Constitutional monarchy also makes dictatorship far less likely. When the office of head of state is by birth alone, nobody else can have it. This is just as well as elected prime ministers under a parliamentary system are very powerful – they can do anything they want if they have the backing of a majority in parliament. A prime minister is more powerful within his own country than the US president. The monarchy acts as an effective buffer against prime ministerial power.
Constitutional monarchy is also cheap. The annual cost to the British taxpayer is $87 million, compared to a $1.4 billion tag that goes with the American presidency. Even the $87 million cost in the UK is deceptive. The cost is more than offset by entrance fees to the royal palaces, money that goes straight to the Treasury. Additionally, money the queen receives for her constitutional role is actually revenue the government receives from the Crown Estates. The government, in effect, is giving her back her own money – and they only give back 15%!
Other nations that remain loyal to the crown, notably Canada, Australia and New Zealand, benefit even more as there is no cost to them except when the monarch visits.
An additional benefit to all the countries named is that the monarch is a unifying figure who remains above politics. Any monarch (or family member) who expresses a political opinion risks dividing the country over which they preside. It would be very unwise and could prove fatal, leading to revolution or civil war.
Meanwhile, the monarchs are kept extremely busy in their respective roles. The 87-year-old British monarch takes on more engagements each year than the US president. So do other members of her family. The other monarchs play a similar role.
Holland is unusual in that it has become tradition for an elderly monarch to retire. This is not the case in other European nations.
Finally, a sovereign is a guarantor of sovereignty. As long as The Netherlands has a monarch, a European super state under one federal authority remains problematic. At a time of strengthening European unity, these monarchs are the greatest guarantee of their country’s continued existence.
The grand hand-over ceremony and celebrations marking Queen Beatrix’s abdication and her son’s swearing in may not seem very important but Holland is one country that is so stable the rest of the world doesn’t have to worry about it.