Kings, Queens, and Contemporary European Politics

The Netherland's Queen Beatrix Addressing Parliament.

The Netherland’s Queen Beatrix Addressing Parliament.

The Netherland’s Queen Beatrix last week abdicated her position, handing the monarchy to her son, Willem-Alexander. Her decision was seen as both unexpected and usual, bucking the trend of other European monarchs, such as those in Spain, Belgium, Sweden, and Denmark, which have held on to power despite personal and political challenges. While far more popular than her son, it is unlikely that Queen Beatrix’s resignation will have any lasting effect on Dutch politics.

But what exactly do kings and queens do?

Many European countries retain a hereditary monarchy by tradition. The functions of the executive, which are fused into a single office in the United States, are separated into two offices under these systems. The monarch usually serves as the ceremonial head of state, while a president or prime minister serves as the head of government. The responsibilities of the head of state are largely symbolic; real power is vested in the head of government. In the United Kingdom, for example, Queen Elizabeth is the ceremonial head of state, while Prime Minister David Cameron is the active head of government. Queen Elizabeth performs public duties like opening parliament and receiving ambassadors, while David Cameron performs the real governing, introducing legislation, making policy decisions, and so on.

The separation of the two positions carries some advantages. In countries like Belgium, where language politics have created strong divisions within the country and made governance (at least at the national level) effectively impossible, a ceremonial head of state (King Albert II) can provide a sense of continuity and acts as a symbol of national unity. There are also some who argue that the separation of the two positions creates additional checks on the power of the government. In the United Kingdom, for example, Queen Elizabeth II must give “royal assent” (approval) to all legislation passed by parliament. While royal ascent has not been withheld in Great Britain since the 1700s, it has been denied more recently in some former British colonies. Canada’s Governor General (the Queen’s representative in Canada), denied royal assent to a bill in 1963. Despite its rare usage, many groups lobby the Queen to deny royal assent on measures they oppose.

That said, ceremonial heads of state can sometimes create headaches for

Spain's King Juan Carlos Safaris in Botswana.

Spain’s King Juan Carlos Safaris in Botswana.

political leaders. Take, for example, Spain’s King Juan Carlos’s decision last year to participate in a €10,000-a-day hunting safari in Botswana as the country’s struggled with an ongoing economic crisis and an unemployment rate reaching 30 percent—hardly the image Spain wanted to project at the time.

What do you think? Does the division of executive power into multiple offices establish a stronger, more effective, or more democratic government? Or does it merely create greater opportunity for corruption and uncertainty? Would support the creation of a separate head of state in the United States? Take the poll below or leave a comment and let us know what you think?

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