Dutch activists sue the king and ask for his powers to be reduced

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By Aleksandar Brezar
Dutch King Willem-Alexander marked the opening of the parliamentary year with a speech in The Hague, 21 September 2021
Dutch King Willem-Alexander marked the opening of the parliamentary year with a speech in The Hague, 21 September 2021   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Peter Dejong

Dutch activists have brought the country’s king to court in an attempt to prove that his role in the legal system contravenes Europe’s human rights conventions.

Republiek, an anti-monarchist group, is arguing that the Dutch state should remove any provisions that allow the monarch to partake in the legal system, including appointing judges and approving legal decisions.

In a hearing on Wednesday, Republiek’s legal representative Ewout Jansen presented the case in front of the Hague District Court.

King Willem-Alexander exercised his right not to appear in person, having his personal lawyer Arnold Croiset van Uchelen represent him instead — a privilege the activist group believes gives him an unfair advantage — as well as the state lawyer Reimer Veldhuis.

Veldhuis is also the country’s attorney general.

Instead of attending the hearing, King Willem-Alexander opted to swear in two new judges to the Dutch Supreme Court, mere kilometres away at his Noordeinde Palace in The Hague centre.

The king’s portrait was, however, prominently displayed in the courtroom — another custom Republiek would like to see abolished.

Betraying the people's trust?

As Jansen explained to Euronews, his clients have put together a list of 18 procedural issues that they believe are not merely symbolic, as the country’s government claims.

According to him, Willem-Alexander’s delayed response in signing off on emergency measures during the COVID-19 pandemic is indicative of how the monarch’s role is far from just figurative.

Two anonymous sources close to the legislative process tipped off the group that the king stalled in making the decision, which put pressure on the government and the health services in the country as cases soared.

“He asked for a couple of weeks’ time to consider it. And this was very stressful to the government because of the urgency of the matter — the lockdown had to come into effect quickly,” Jansen said.

“We believe that this (shows it) is not a symbolic matter as the state argued. Although I have to admit it mostly is, sometimes apparently it isn’t.”

The Dutch king had come under fire for his actions during the pandemic twice in 2020 — first, in August, when he and Queen Maxima were pictured breaking social distancing rules during a trip to Greece.

They travelled to Greece again in October of the same year but had to cut their trip short as many in the Netherlands felt it was unfair for the royals to seek leisure as the country underwent partial lockdown.

Willem-Alexander apologised in a video statement together with Maxima, saying it “hurts to have betrayed (the people’s) trust in us”.

While other royals, like the Belgian prince who contracted COVID-19 while vacationing in Spain, were penalised for their disregard of measures in place, the Dutch royal court was not sanctioned in either of the two cases.

The Netherlands are one of the last remaining kingdoms in Europe where the monarch is legally inviolable — meaning that they cannot be held accountable for their actions by any state body.

In political matters, as co-signatories to any laws and decisions, it is, in fact, the ministers who are seen as responsible in front of the parliament.

But in legal proceedings, such as Republiek's case, the judge cannot question the king, only his attorney. 

'A human being after all'

According to Jansen, other examples from the past also point to the fact that the monarch’s decisions can be subjective and prone to change.

In the aftermath of World War II, the Netherlands prosecuted a number of Nazi German collaborators and war criminals, with some receiving the death penalty.

However, Queen Juliana had grown increasingly reluctant to authorise the executions, instead commuting them to life in prison.

Jansen believes that this created a discrepancy where shorter court cases for small-fry collaborators meant that they ended up getting executed, while their higher-ups — whose trials were more complicated and went on for longer — were, in fact, spared.

“It was a weird request from the beginning. The government wanted to on the one hand ask for the death penalty for those who collaborated with the Germans.”

“On the other hand, they felt that it would be best if the queen would pardon them after the judgements — to channel the anger of the Dutch people, but also not to execute everyone. But the queen refused this, and they were shot,” he explained.

“But later in the ‘70s, the queen refused to sign the death penalty for the people that were collaborating because she believed it was wrong — in both cases, I believe this was the sentiment of the whole country.”

“But it turned out that the cases that were quickly finished were concerning those with less responsibility for the crimes. So at the end of the day, the people who did the nastiest stuff lived, and the lower operating people were shot,” Jansen said.

In today's terms, this goes to show that although the monarch's decision might reflect popular opinion, it still allows for a subjective reading of the law by the sovereign, "which is very human", Jansen pointed out. 

Yet it also illustrates that the Dutch monarch can have an influence on judicial proceedings as they act as a judge themselves. Furthermore, their decisions might not represent the will of the voters.

How popular is the Dutch king these days?

Meanwhile, an argument is being made by the activists that the royals' popularity among the Dutch has been on the decrease.

Republiek announced the lawsuit in 2020 and raised €35,000 through crowdfunding for the proceedings within mere days. 

“You see more people being critical of the royal house, and fewer people support the monarchy,” the group’s chairperson Floris Müller said during the press conference on Wednesday.

An April 2022 poll by Statista showed that Dutch citizens want the country to remain a monarchy, with 58% choosing that over it becoming a republic.

An Ipsos survey commissioned by Republiek later this year indicated that the pro-royal camp might be even smaller, coming out to 51% of those polled, public broadcaster NOS reported on 1 October.

Yet, this is a significant dip in comparison to the overwhelming support for the royal house over the years, with data from survey agency TNS NIPO suggesting that between 85-90% of people in the Netherlands were in favour of it remaining a kingdom since the 1960s.

The Republiek’s case, however, is not seeking to strip the king of his title or rid the country of its royal family. 

Instead, the hearing on Wednesday and the decision — set for 8 March 2023 — are about seeing the monarch's influence on the judicial system minimised or removed altogether.

And according to Jansen, the group is ready to take the case to the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights if need be.

"This is not about this king or that king being popular or not popular," he said. "He is not a one-man supreme court."