Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom, carries an aura of power even though her role is a ceremonial one. She is the constitutional monarch of 16 sovereign states, known as the Commonwealth realms, and head of the 54-member Commonwealth of Nations. The British prime minister consults her opinion weekly, but her main function is to reinforce national unity and identity. Some 70 percent of the British support their monarchy, by far the longest-standing in Europe.
The Dutch royal house has also been on solid ground for the past two centuries. The Netherlands’ monarchy has the approval of around three quarters of the population. Beatrix as Queen had a real political role till just last year, in the formation of governments. Her son King Willem-Alexander, to whom she recently ceded the throne, under a new reform, will not exercise the same influence but will carry on the weekly chats with the prime minister.
Belgium’s monarchy has retained limited powers. The king is entrusted with helping to form governments for parliament to approve. Here too, prime ministers come to see him, and heads of the opposition. He signs off on federal legislation, among his duties, as well as acting as a unifying force in a multicultural democracy. As is the tradition, Albert II is known not as King of Belgium but of the Belgians.
Spain put a king back on the throne at the end of the Franco dictatorship, becoming a parliamentary monarchy. King Juan Carlos I is the symbol of constitutional national continuity in a country made up of many largely autonomous parts. The royals’ popularity here has recently fallen to 37 percent, scandals having hurt their standing.
This shows up the main vulnerability of kings and queens today: the tolerance margin for moral slippage is thin. Public opinion can quickly turn against them if they are not seen to be fulfilling their responsibilities, which are essentially to represent the people and proud traditions.