Politics and popularity: Why are there still so many monarchies in Europe?

What's the secret of European royalty's success?
What's the secret of European royalty's success?   -   Copyright  AP photo
By Tim Gallagher

Today will be King Charles III's first Christmas address to the people of the UK, a duty his mother Queen Elizabeth II carried out for 70 years. 

The royal Christmas speech is an important cultural event in the UK and Charles's taking of the reins is an essential piece of continuity for life in the country, which is one of the last remaining monarchies in Europe, and a sign of the royal family's enduring popularity. 

At one time practically every country in Europe was ruled by royalty, but today only 12 principalities and kingdoms remain. 

Europeans consider their modern nation states to be the embodiment of democracy and liberal values, so isn’t it contradictory to have an archaic hereditary head of state?

What’s the secret of success for the remaining European royals?

The democracy paradox

All the royal families left in Europe coexist with democracy and do it rather well at that.

The Economist Intelligence Unit in 2021 ranked Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, Luxembourg, and the UK in its top 20 of its Democracy Index with Spain and Belgium close behind.

“I think there is rather shallow thinking in Europe particularly in countries like France that the highest form of democracy is to be a republic,” says Professor Robert Hazell of the Constitution Unit at University College London.

“It is a teleological assumption that all good democracies eventually become republics.”

At the start of the 20th century only France, Switzerland and the tiny nation of San Marino were republics, but defeat in World War I spelled the end for the Romanovs of Russia and the Hapsburgs of Austria-Hungary..

Following World War II many remaining eastern European monarchies were dispatched by the Soviets one way or another, not that this led to thriving democratic republics.

Frank Augstein/
The royal families of Europe at Queen Elizabeth II's funeralFrank Augstein/

The paradox principle

“There is no contradiction between a country being a monarchy and being an advanced democracy,” says Hazell.

The western European countries that retain their Kings, Queens and Princes are also lucky enough to combine democracy with extremely high living standards.

The Scandinavians are known for their high rankings on the World Happiness Report, but all the western, central and southern European monarchies reap the benefits of being industrialised nations.

“If you look at these countries, they have among the highest standards of living in the world. They have social security nets people in other places dream of,” says historian of European royalty Marlene Koenig.

“There doesn’t seem to be any real rumblings anywhere for getting rid of the royals. It is a difficult process and there is no revolution and no Soviet troops coming in.”

A popularity contest

Peter Dejong
Revellers in Amsterdam on Queen's Day 2007Peter Dejong

If you have a democratic process and citizens generally enjoy a high standard of living in any case, are monarchies just there because people can’t be bothered?

It may be more than that.

“Any monarchy depends on popular support and the levels are remarkably high,” says Hazell.

At the death of Queen Elizabeth II public mourning reached a fever pitch in the UK, with thousands of Brits queuing for hours on end to see her lying in state. These scenes were mere months after equal numbers turned out on the street for joyful celebrations of the platinum jubilee.

The Queen’s son King Charles III was long considered either a villain for his treatment of his ex-wife Princess Diana by some and an eccentric figure of fun by others. However, on his accession to the throne he enjoyed a surge in support with 63 per cent of Brits saying he’d do a good job as king.

In Denmark, around three-quarters of the public support the monarchy and, even after a string of COVID-related scandals, the Dutch royal family enjoys over 50% public support.

“Those countries that remain monarchies, unless and until the monarchy loses popular support the country will remain a monarchy,” says Hazell.

One way in which Royals keep ahead of the popularity curve is by staying in step with the times, giving them a sort of ironic accountability.

Royals pick progressive but uncontroversial causes like Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands' patronage of the arts or King Harald of Norway’s 25th centenary speech in support of multiculturalism.

Meanwhile avoiding shifting the public mood through scandal is always key.

“The bigger the size of the royal family the greater the risk one or more of them will go off the rails,” says Hazell.

Recently Queen Margrethe II of Denmark stripped four of her grandchildren of royal titles to slim-down the Danish Royal family, while in 2019 King Carl XVI Gustav of Sweden acted similarly to five of his son’s offspring.

Emilio Morenatti
Brits queueing to see the Queen's lying in stateEmilio Morenatti

The British royal family operates a core contingent of 10 so-called ‘working royals,’ with King Charles rumoured to want to slim down the family further. Given recent events surrounding Prince Andrew it isn’t difficult to understand why.

Dodging controversy by eliminating rogue elements allows for a tighter grip on royal operations in an age of social media, but it can also be a way to reduce royal expenditure. In the current climate that mindfulness is needed more than ever.

“It will be interesting to see in the plans for King Charles’s coronation to what extent it is slimmed down,” says Hazell.

“He is very sensitive to the risk of excessive lavish spending at a time when everyone is tightening their belts.”

“They [The British royals] want more transparency. You will see changes, it will be a much smaller royal family,” says Koenig.

“They are going to be mindful of things with the coronation.”

Accountability and politics at the palace

One thing everyone could agree about now-deceased Queen Elizabeth II was that she was scrupulously impartial, whatever speculation might have happened about secret messages encoded in her choice of hats.

“One of the roles for the royal family is to be a symbol for the nation as a whole and therefore the monarch as an institution has to strive to represent the whole of the nation,” says Hazell.

“That is why they need to rise above politics.”.

“For most of them they are historically interlinked in the history of their country,” agrees Koenig.

“To have somebody above the shop is a good thing. I think that is important.”

A national figurehead can be a useful thing, as in Belgium where it is said that King Philippe is the only person in the country not to take sides in the bitterly oppositional politics of a country split between Flemish and French speakers.

British post-war Prime Minister Clement Attlee went so far as to say that the sentimental attachment to royal figureheads prevented a slide into dictatorship.

“Far less danger under a constitutional monarchy of being carried away by a Hitler, a Mussolini or even a de Gaulle,” wrote the politician.

Juan Carlos Rojas
King Juan Carlos was forced to abdicate following a number of damaging scandalsJuan Carlos Rojas

Not all royals are the same in this regard, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands was well-known for having liberal views on European unity and immigration. Not that this damaged her popularity; she enjoyed 80 per cent approval ratings at the time of her abdication in 2013.

Royals who enter politics - of their own volition or not - are not always so lucky. The Spanish royals (who themselves coexisted with a dictatorship for decades before playing a part in bringing democracy back to Spain in the 1980s) have been on the rocks more than once after former king Juan Carlos' alleged business deals with Saudi Arabia.

Still, politics or not, the longevity of the monarch as a figurehead goes some way to securing their place in people’s hearts.

“It is easier for the public to identify with a long serving monarch,” says Hazell.

“That person becomes much more familiar and they will identify with the wider royal family too.”

In former monarchies of the Eastern Bloc some royals have moved back to town and court a certain level of favour with the public. In Romania, daughters of the now-dead King Michael who abdicated after the rise of communism today live in the Elisabeta Palace in Bucharest.

“The Romanian government recognises the royal family,” says Koenig.

“They have a rather public role which is interesting.”

In Albania too Prince Leka, Grandson of King Zog I of Albania, hopes for a future role to unite the diverse nation. A failed referendum campaign to reinstate the monarchy in 1997 contrasted the instability of Albania with the wealth and political cohesion of the Nordic monarchies.

That comparison may or may not be fair. Whatever happens, as long as European royal families keep their eye on the ball and adapt to change, they might be around for much, much longer.