A monarchy of our time

Four generations of the British Royal Family. Right-Left: Elizabeth II (mother), Prince William (grandson), Prince George (great-grandson), Prince Charles (son)

Four generations of the British Royal Family. Right to left: Elizabeth II (mother), Prince William (grandson), Prince George (great-grandson), Prince Charles (son)

Ay, what art thou that talk’st of kings and queens?

W. Shakespeare, King Henry VI


June is the monarchs’ most favorite month. It brings in stable sunny days after unpredictable spring weather. That is why many ceremonies are usually planned for, or happen during, this season. This is what recent events confirmed.

There were three different situations in three different countries that drew public attention to the life and future of European royal families in the age of democracy. In Spain, the King revoked one of the titles of Princess Cristina. In the UK, the Queen celebrated its official birthday. In Sweden, Prince Carl Philip married.

It is usually two or three national monarchies that define public image of all ten or twelve European ones (depending on how to count) in general. This “sample” moves us towards speculating routinely about monarchies’ falling popularity as well as corruption and ethnical scandals. These generalisations are not what monarchy actually is and not how it really exists in different European countries.

Of course, they react to criticism and care about their perception, about improving and maintaining their moral and political authority and financial accountability. But this aspiration as well as their popular view varies from country to country. Some enjoy almost unanimous support, others struggle to find balance to keep power. Some are richer, others are poorer. Monarchies even have their own “dictators” and “liberals”.

Political challenges

It is getting increasingly hard for monarchies to hold off critics and defend their privileges. Many politicians, civil organisations, academics and journalists closed ranks against them. Politicians largely come from opposition (especially, far right or far left) parties like the N-VA in Belgium, Sweden Democrats in Sweden, the Danish Social Liberal Party in Denmark or communists in Spain. There are civil organisations in almost every country, including the Republican Association in Sweden and Republic in the UK.

Sometimes members of parliaments and governments also show their republican sentiments. In 2011, some ministers in the coalition government in Denmark refused to stand when the Queen left after the state opening of parliament. Later, a question of constitutional changes has been debated to exclude political powers from the royal prerogatives. In Belgium, some members of the government intentionally went against the protocol in front of the King during the oath ceremony. In Sweden, some Social Democratic ministers openly vow for scrapping monarchy while Sweden Democrats deputies even tabled a motion on the issue. In 2015, during the swearing-in ceremony Labour MP Richard Burgon called for the abolition of monarchy in the UK.

However, royal families, raised for centuries with the skills of political fight, are not going to give up. At least, majority of them. To overcome public sentiments and to stay in power, they develop and apply various solutions beside moral authority and the status of tradition keepers. We listed some of them below and of course it can be extended.

— “Rejuvenation” of the Crown. It has been one of the most popular decisions in the past years. New kings have succeeded to the throne in Belgium and the Netherlands (2013), Spain (2014). The Hereditary Prince has effectively been in charge in Liechtenstein since 2004. Albert II has been the Prince of Monaco since 2005. Grand Duke Henry has reigned in Luxembourg since 2000. Moreover, only the latter two and the King of Belgium are over 50.

“I don’t want my son to grow old waiting like Prince Charles,” was a famous rebuke made by former Spanish King Juan Carlos to other monarchs [1]. Elizabeth II in the UK, Margrethe II in Denmark, Harald V in Norway, Carl XVI Gustaf keep reigning despite own ills and others’ calls to abdicate.

— “Democratisation”. Unexpectedly, marriages of heirs and royal family members to commoners have brought positive effects. The most notable example was the decision of Norwegian Prince Haakon to marry an ordinary single mother in 2001. This story making a Cinderella fairy tale come true maintains the national image of monarchy at such a height that even its opponents have to confess that it would be damaging for them to campaign against it.

Spanish King Felipe VI and Dutch King Willem-Alexander are also married to ordinary women. Among heirs, these examples were followed by British Prince William and Swedish Prince Carl Philip.

Tattooed princesses do not cause shock anymore. Photo: Sofia Hellqvist and Carl Philip

Tattooed princesses do not cause shock anymore. Photo: Sofia Hellqvist and Carl Philip

However, as an example to the contrary, Prince Harry proved that privileges do not have a decisive role any longer. His relationships have ended in nothing because not every girl is ready to follow the restrictions imposed by the life in royal palaces. “Becoming one of the royals isn’t just signing up for übercelebrity and a lifetime of being recognised wherever you go — it’s contracting to take a rapid trip in the time tunnel back to a place where women are consorts and decorative additions who are required to live by an antediluvian code,” wrote The Times [2].

— Financial accountability. A move aimed at pragmatists, aimed to convince those who weigh even state traditions against pure numbers. Today, reports are published by almost every monarchy, with a handful of small few minor exceptions. These documents provide information both on sources of revenues and directions of expenditures.

— Concessions. Publication of financial reports is one and the most obvious examples when the royals decide better to give up. Other concessions are rather political. In fact, many royal families have already lost real power. Their existence has diminished to the British formula “the Queen reigns but does not rule”. They accept the formation and resignation of government, deliver state opening of parliament, give royal assent. Sometimes even these humble prerogatives draw criticism from politicians, but to no visible success.

Luxembourg and Liechtenstein are the two interesting cases. In 2008, a debate on euthanasia broke out in Luxembourg. The Grand Duke stood against it but the parliament passed a bill contrary to his will. Henry found himself in the situation when he had to go openly against his conscience or to abdicate. Instead, he found an amazing third way: he reduced his own powers and renounced the right to sanction bills. He can now only formally verify them.

But concessions are not for all. Local activists in Liechtenstein believe that they have “the most powerful monarchy in Europe” and Hereditary Prince Alois is “a modern day Leviathan” because he still has the right to veto any bill. In 2012, there was a referendum where people were offered to reduce powers of the Prince but over 76% voted in support of the reigning family.


Almost no debate about contemporary monarchy goes without an argument of how much taxpayers’ money it spends. Critics say it cannot spend so much money and do virtually nothing. It seems that a country pays for expensive ceremonial functions that can be done differently at much lower costs.

This view gained popularity after the 2008-9 financial crisis when most countries agreed to budget austerity. The question was raised whether monarchies had to cut their spending like the rest of the country did.

However, it is always nearly impossible to count their money. “Trying to make sense of the royal finances is like trying to eat spaghetti with a spoon,” wrote one of the critics in the New York Times [3]. The public has access either to state budget lines that specify how much the country spends on the Crown, or royal reports. But if the former is quite clear, the latter can be utterly vague.

The difference between official reports and independent estimates can be huge. According to Republic, the real costs of the British monarchy are five – six times higher than officially declared.

In the meantime, royal incomes are not always linked directly to state finances. Kings and queens have used to earn money for themselves for many years. So in many cases, they combine state grants and revenues from other sources, even if their budget is approved by parliament or government. Moreover, in Liechtenstein the Prince’s business is an important part of the national economy.

Complicated structure of royal finances makes it hard to compare them with each other. The key reason is that revenues and expenditures are counted differently in various countries so the comparison of total numbers is thus inaccurate.

However, this is how the total budgets for nine monarchies look like, regardless of the nuances how they split and, in some cases, without official confirmation.


Britain is a traditional leader in terms of costs of monarchy and, unlike in other countries, its budget has only grown in the past years. Other countries’ positions are not so stable and vary in different ratings [4, 5]. Spain is traditionally at the bottom with very modest expenses.

There are also attempts to count costs per capita, like the one by Euronews [6]. Under this methodology, the leaders in costs are Norway, the Netherlands, and Denmark.


Scandals, undemocratic nature and questionable costs are the factors that apparently undermine monarchies across Europe. But if you take a look at the real levels of public support, you will most likely decide that the debate is not that hot so far and the royal families may feel confident.

Most ratings show monarchies usually have had no less 70% of approval. And a series of abdications in 2012-4 has not had a bad impact that many expected. On the contrary, young leaders have become a positive factor. Similarly, other measures aimed at adapting monarchies to modern tastes have also played out well.



[1] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2652058/I-didnt-want-son-grow-old-waiting-like-Prince-Charles-King-Juan-Carlos-Spain-reveals-decided-abdicate.html

[2] http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/life/article4077270.ece

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/15/opinion/sunday/malik-britains-welfare-queen.html?_r=0

[4] http://www.handelsblatt.com/panorama/aus-aller-welt/finanzen-der-monarchen-so-viel-kosten-die-koenigshaeuser-in-europa/9994854.html

[5] http://www.aftenposten.no/nyheter/uriks/—Norges-monarki-tredje-dyrest-i-Europa-5329287.html

[6] https://infogr.am/The-cost-of-monarchies-in-Europe

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