The King in Europe

Some 30 years ago, the question of whether there was a place for the monarch in Europe was raised in the Netherlands. That question was based on a misunderstanding and a misjudgment. The misunderstanding was the view that a united Europe would be a federal state into which the Netherlands would be absorbed without much in the way of debate or difficulty. The misjudgment concerned the important role played by a monarch in times of change. For it is precisely at such times that it is good to know what binds a nation together. ’We can only be good Europeans if we are fully conscious of our own identity; indeed, that is a prerequisite for beneficial cooperation. It is only on the basis of our own foundations that we can build towards the Europe of today and of tomorrow.’ (Queen Beatrix, London, 1982).

Today, people in many countries oppose further transfers of sovereignty to the European Union. Here again, such opposition is based on a misunderstanding and a misjudgment. The misunderstanding is the idea that a sovereign state, dependent on nothing and nobody, can still exist – if indeed it ever did exist – in a world of shifting power relations and blurring borders. More and more often, the choice is between two options: first, to take part in cross-border cooperation and thus exercise a modest influence; second, to preserve one’s autonomy and so be ever more frequently at the mercy of decisions made by more powerful states, unilaterally or together. The misjudgment is that state sovereignty in Europe has evolved into the sovereignty of the law: a common European legal order in which power relations have become anchored in legal relations. In other words, national sovereignty (a matter of power) has become shared sovereignty (a matter of law). And this particularly benefits the smaller member states and their citizens: the twin pillars on which the EU is based. The common legal order was also intended to be a social order. However, the EU’s social dimension has been pushed into the background, partly under the influence of the United Kingdom. Who talks any more about the Rhineland model of the social welfare state?
How people regard Europe and talk about Europe does not match what the European Union actually is: a unique form of cooperation to which previously existing political terminology – ranging from federation to national sovereignty – does not apply. The EU rests on two pillars: its member states and its citizens. This means that the responsibility for the common European legal order is a shared one: European and national alike. National institutions have acquired a European role. This is clear in the case of the judiciary, which is charged with applying domestic law in accordance with the treaties. Placing more emphasis on the intergovernmental nature of the Union actually increases the European role of national governments. But members of national governments attempt to shift their share of responsibility onto ‘Brussels’ – and often they succeed. National parliaments allow them to do so and hence neglect their European role. Parliamentary scrutiny of plans that are quite openly being made in Brussels is poor. There is no political vision of where Europe should be going. This national democratic deficit is part of the democratic deficit ascribed to the EU.

Against this background, it is not surprising that little thought is given to the European role of the foremost national institution: the King. Over time, weaknesses in national democracy render a substantive monarchy vulnerable. At the same time, it is increasingly important to raise the European profile of the things the Netherlands regards as valuable. After all, Europe is united in its diversity: a diversity which is less and less economic in nature, given the degree of mutual economic dependence that now exists among the member states. As consumers, we want to be able to buy everything everywhere for the lowest possible price. Rather, Europe’s diversity is sociocultural, and is determined by the individual identities of its peoples. Dutch citizens will be European citizens only if they continue to feel at home in their own country. If people give up on their own country the EU too is weakened. And people will be more likely to feel at home in their own country if they feel that they matter in their own neighbourhood, town or city. In that sense Europe truly begins ‘around the corner’. People are frustrated not so much by the presumed loss of national sovereignty, but by the feeling that they are being deprived of certainty and prospects. Although the EU gets the blame for this, the decisive contribution has actually come from the member states. The remarkable thing about the result of the referendum in the United Kingdom is that the EU was held to account for the consequences of a free market policy which the UK strongly advocated and which the Netherlands has always wholeheartedly supported.

Sociocultural diversity also provides a necessary counterbalance to the pressure for harmonisation that emanates from the free market. Markets do not like making allowances for national diversity, since they are always afraid of unfair competition. Paradoxically, anyone who wishes to preserve a distinctive national identity must acknowledge that the EU should be more than simply a free market.

The member states have much to offer one other – and hence Europe – in sociocultural terms. ‘The Greeks planted the seeds of the democratic polity we cherish today. The Italians gave us the Renaissance, a shining source of cultural and scientific innovation. It was a French immigrant, Christophe Plantin, who in the late 16th century published the first dictionaries of the Dutch language. German and French thinkers such as Leibniz and Voltaire laid the foundations for the Enlightenment. And in the final years of the Second World War, our British and Polish allies fought for Dutch freedom, at great personal cost. Great things are rarely achieved at purely national level. The deeper we dig, the more we see how interwoven the roots of our countries and cultures are. You can fence off territory, but not culture. Europe represents an ideal of civilisation: one of personal freedom, human dignity, equality and solidarity.’(Address by King Willem-Alexander to the European Parliament, May 2016). The King’s links with European history make him a representative of that ideal of civilisation.

This is the other Europe, the Europe that distinguishes itself from the rest of the world. ‘In the space of a few generations, Europe’s position in the world has changed. We can no longer assume that our way of thinking will set the tone. We are no longer the centre of the world, economically, geopolitically or culturally. The values we consider universal are not self-evident everywhere, and in many places are under threat. It’s vital that we work together, precisely because we believe in those values and in our shared tradition. It is no longer the past that compels us to unite, but the future.’ (Ibid.) But national politicians and officials nowadays know little of the other Europe – the Europe of respect for national identities and a shared ideal of civilisation – and consequently the EU pays little heed to it, since the Union can move no faster and go no farther than the member states permit. This indifference to sociocultural diversity is another part of the EU’s democratic deficit. For diversity is a characteristic feature of democracy: a positive societal characteristic, not an administrative obstacle.

The Europe of diversity will thus not take shape until the member states themselves are prepared to take their sociocultural individuality seriously and to join forces to protect the European ideal of civilisation. But that will be impossible as long as national politics is almost solely concerned with financial management and economic development. And the EU’s focus on the free market means that it can offer little by way of a counterbalance.

This is the background to a closer examination of how the Dutch head of state’s European role should be fulfilled. There is no contradiction between the King’s twin roles as the symbol of Dutch national identity and an advocate of European cooperation. The Dutch monarchy has come to symbolise the national State, but it sprang from – and is inextricably linked to – the history of Europe. And the Dutch monarchy demonstrates that national and European identities need not be mutually exclusive but can in fact reinforce each other. Similarly, the rule of law at national level is not weakened but strengthened by the common European legal order. But as long as the debate about the EU addresses the wrong issue – i.e. that ‘Brussels’ and its bureaucracy are to blame for everything that goes wrong – and as long as that debate is conducted using the wrong terms – i.e. national sovereignty on the one hand and federation on the other – the options available to the King are limited but perhaps not entirely absent.

The King could use his influence internally to encourage a substantive debate about Europe in the Netherlands, something that politicians cannot achieve unaided. Dutch political reactions to the result of the British referendum strongly resemble the responses, 12 years ago, to the negative outcome of the referendum in the Netherlands on the EU’s Constitutional Treaty. Then, as now, the result underlined the need for a substantive political debate on the significance of European cooperation – the facts and the values; the opportunities and the limitations. However, no political debate took place – a clear indication of the democratic deficit. And that democratic deficit still exists today. The biggest problem is not the populist opponents of the EU, but the half-hearted attitude of its supporters.

In addition, the King can contribute to the public debate, if the opportunity arises, by drawing attention to the EU’s sociocultural and normative significance. King Willem-Alexander’s address to the European Parliament in May 2016 is a case in point.

Lastly, the King can focus attention in Europe – as in the Netherlands – on civil society, the visible consequence of EU citizenship. There can be no political democracy without a form of societal democracy, and the absence of this is another part of Europe’s democratic deficit. A number of factors play an important part in strengthening civil society: the civil rights enshrined in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, the various ways of involving citizens and their organisations in the EU, their identifiable input into EU policies, their contribution to the public debate on Europe and their links with their own grassroots. Moreover, ‘bottom-up’ initiatives for reform of agriculture, for example, deserve more public recognition, and more encouragement should be given to academic cooperation and cultural exchange.
These are all avenues for further exploration of the King’s role in Europe.