Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II on Sept. 8, tributes poured in from leaders across Europe. These accolades are well deserved, given the late Queen’s monumental role in steering one of Europe’s major powers over the past seven decades. In the midst of such universal praise, however, it is easy to overlook the widely varying national attitudes toward monarchy in contemporary Europe.
As the end of the second Elizabethan era prompts reflection on the future of the British monarchy, it is worth also considering the cases of Britain’s European neighbors, whose own relationships with monarchy run the gamut from reverence to disdain.
ACCOUNTABILITY IS KING (OR QUEEN)
As of today, there are ten hereditary constitutional monarchies in Europe, all of which are located along the continent’s western and northern edges. While certainly in the minority compared to republics, they are nonetheless more common than one might expect in a region of the world known for its commitment to liberal democratic governance. How might one explain this apparent paradox?
In spite of this evidence that monarchy may coexist with thriving liberal democracy, many national perceptions of monarchy in Europe are deeply colored by traumatic historical experiences.
In certain cases, significant tensions have emerged between an unelected hereditary head of state and the national body politic. Look no further than Spain, where a majority of the population indicated its support for a referendum on the monarchy as recently as 2018. This unpopularity — the highest among European monarchies — is closely tied to the actions of former King Juan Carlos, who abdicated in 2014 and has faced a series of scandals, including suspicions that he accepted $100 million in bribes from Saudi Arabia. As University College London scholars Robert Hazell and Bob Morris argue in their recent book on “The Role of Monarchy in Modern Democracy,” avoiding scandals is one of the most important secrets to the survival of monarchies in the modern era. Allegations of corruption, on the other hand, undermine the basic trust of citizens that the monarch is acting to further national rather than solely personal interests.
However, those monarchs who do not break this trust are rewarded with high levels of public support. In Denmark, for instance, a large majority of citizens favor the preservation of the monarchy. Given Denmark’s credentials as one of the world’s freest and most progressive countries, this may come as a surprise. Monarchy, after all, is often considered to be an outdated, inherently undemocratic institution. The Danish monarchy, however, has remained highly sensitive to public opinion. In 2009, for instance, the government held a referendum on proposed changes to the laws of Royal succession. In this way, the Danish monarchy has demonstrated its accountability to the national will and garnered high levels of support.
THE RULE OF HISTORY
In spite of this evidence that monarchy may coexist with thriving liberal democracy, many national perceptions of monarchy in Europe are deeply colored by traumatic historical experiences. In Ireland, where the legacy of British imperialism has left deep scars, criticism of the British monarchy is commonplace. During the fallout of the decision by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle to step back from their roles as senior royals, for instance, leading Irish commentators seized the opportunity to denounce the institution as “archaic” and described it as “a homage to classism.”
French history has similarly exerted a negative influence on national attitudes toward monarchy. From 1792 to 1870, when King Louis XVI was executed, five monarchical regimes were deposed before the establishment of the Third Republic permanently ended monarchy in France. Unsurprisingly, this tumultuous period has left an indelible mark on the national consciousness, with the often-violent historical struggle undertaken to achieve a republican form of government forming a core part of French identity. Indeed, republicanism is embedded into the national DNA — no monarch, even the most apolitical and powerless, could prove acceptable to the French citizenry.
Finally, citizens of some European nations may even view their past loss of monarchy as something to be mourned and regretted. Under the rule of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian government has manipulated history in order to instill a sense of grievance among the public, regularly referencing the supposed loss of Hungarian grandeur that occurred as a result of the end of the monarchy following World War I. This narrative has made clear inroads among some sections of society. In August 2022, for example, an activist group called the Homeland Conquest 2000 Association called for the restoration of the Hungarian monarchy. Though it is unclear to what extent Orbán himself may endorse such an idea, his relentless campaign to centralize power and undermine Hungary’s democratic institutions over more than a decade suggests at the very least a lack of commitment to the nation’s republican identity.
AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE FOR THE BRITISH MONARCHY
Going forward, the British monarchy does not appear to be in any immediate existential danger, with recent polls finding that its popularity has remained relatively stable over time. Nevertheless, its future is by no means guaranteed. The monarchy is far less popular among young Britons, and the death of Queen Elizabeth may offer a chance for republicans to push forward their movement to abolish the monarchy with an untested new King at the helm.
If the experiences of the United Kingdom’s neighbors in Europe are any indication, no one-size-fits-all solution may exist, and any solution may be open to revision.
Nick Lokker is a Research Assistant with the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.