The United Kingdom, usually a very stable polity, has been in more or less constant political turmoil since the Brexit vote in 2016. No sooner had that crisis subsided with the massive Conservative election victory in December 2019, than Covid hit. Then followed a series of non-stop scandals which culminated in the resignation of the prime minister and a prolonged leadership contest. Scotland, where the ‘remain’ vote was highest, ponders whether to leave the United Kingdom in order to stay in the European Union. There has been constant tension in Northern Ireland over the new customs arrangements. Throughout this period, and indeed throughout her reign, the monarchy under the steady hand of Queen Elizabeth II, provided an element of stability and continuity. Now the new king, Charles III, looks set to carry on this tradition.
Nearly ten years ago, news that the Duchess of Cambridge — now Princess of Wales — had given birth to her first child, Prince George, provoked intense, almost obsessive interest in tabloid newspapers around the world. It also re-ignited the perennial British debate about the status of the monarchy, which presupposes the idea of hereditary hierarchy in a stridently non-deferential age. Opponents of monarchy condemn the royal family as expensive and spoilt celebrities. Its defenders object that the monarchy is actually very good value for money, and indeed makes a substantial contribution to ‘brand Britannia’ through tourism and culture. The Queen’s dramatic entrance during the 2012 Olympic opening ceremonies was, they say, a good example of this. It is significant that Scottish nationalists are not planning any changes in that respect should they prevail in any new referendum on independence.
Of course, most countries manage without royal families, in particular the United States. Many people — myself included — are instinctive republicans, who prefer the rigours of democratic selection to dynastic happenstance. That said, monarchy has proved a remarkably enduring, and often useful institution. It is striking, for example, how resilient the traditional Middle Eastern monarchies have been throughout the Arab Spring. Hereditary — or would-be hereditary — dictatorships such as Libya and Egypt have fallen; the Assad dynasty in Syria clung on by the skin of its teeth. Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf monarchies, by contrast, saw unrest — some of it serious — but were not seriously threatened.
All this should make us at least ponder on the nature of political legitimacy and whether — to borrow Max Weber’s famous categories — we should not reject the vagaries of ‘charismatic’ rule by strongmen in favour of ‘traditional’ monarchical government, even if this is no more than ‘routinized charisma.’ The established dynasties may originate in some form of violence and usurpation — some might say the English monarchy is no exception, based on the deposition of the Stuarts back in the seventeenth century — but they have had the rougher edges knocked off them over time. This is potentially a precarious argument, of course, as it implies that a long-lasting Assad regime — say — might acquire some of the legitimacy it currently lacks simply by surviving.
But if the executive undemocratic dynasties cannot be a model for today, the many constitutional monarchies have a lot to be said for them. In Belgium, where King Philippe succeeded to popular acclaim, the monarchy — once controversial — is now widely seen as a bond between quarrelling Flemings and Walloons. Nearby Holland is less divided, but there too the succession of King Willem-Alexander served to unite the nation, especially because the royal house has made a concerted effort to reach out to the immigrant community. In all these cases, the reigning prince provides a historical and integrative focal point for the nation. Outside Europe, the monarchy in Japan enjoys a particularly constructive role. Indeed, the continued reign of Emperor Hirohito after the catastrophe of 1945 played an important part in stabilising the country.
All this raises the question of what role monarchy could play in the uniting of Europe. The Continent, or most of it, has embarked on a common political and economic project, but it lacks common rituals. There is the Eurovision Song contest, of course, and the European Football Championship, but these can divide more than unite. The same is true for the joint political institutions in Brussels, whose standing is at a very low ebb. A European head of state, by contrast, might provide a rallying point for the whole Continent, including the United Kingdom and other non-EU countries.
Here there are three possible models. The first, a purely Republican one, an elected president of Europe, would create severe difficulties. There are many monarchies in the European Union: in Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Luxembourg, and Spain; some of these lie within the Eurozone, the area most likely to form a fiscal and political union, that is a United States of Europe. Were the European Union to acquire a presidential head of state, one would be left with the anomaly of placing him or her over long-established royal houses. But simply abolishing these monarchies in the interest of tidiness or progress would be deeply unpopular and might endanger societal cohesion.
There are two other possible — monarchic — solutions. The first, which one might call ‘Holy Roman,’ would revive the tradition of the Holy Roman Empire, which was presided over by an emperor elected by the reigning kings, princes, and the most senior ecclesiastical figures. It was, in other words, a rotating headship — though effectively hereditary through the House of Habsburg from the mid-fifteenth century — based on consent rather than the divine right of a particular family. One would probably not get away with making cardinals electors today, but in most other respects the model could be applied by electing the monarch from the existing reigning houses and heads of state. There would still be problems, however. An electorate made up of hereditary monarchs and elected presidents would be neither one thing nor another. Some of the disestablished dynasties, such as the Habsburgs, the Bavarian Wittelsbachs, and perhaps even the Hohenzollerns might feel unjustly excluded. Moreover, since Britain has left the European Union and is unlikely to subordinate its monarchy to any European head of state, there would be a danger of widening the gap between London and ‘Brussels.’
For this reason, I prefer the Star Wars option which is to create a hereditary European emperor or empress, who would serve as head of state not only for whatever single Eurozone state emerges but also for the rest of the EU, and indeed the entire democratic part of the Continent. In the long term, this would avoid endless squabbles and imperial elections of the kind that destabilised the Holy Roman Empire for hundreds of years. In the short term, though, one would have to settle the issue of what dynasty to choose. One might select a particularly distinguished line of European statesmen and women, but these are in short supply and likely to be contentious (House of Macron? House of von der Leyen?). Alternatively, one could have a once-off election of a dynasty, but that would also be divisive and in many ways, weird.
The most logical, natural and organic way around this problem would be simply to choose the House of Windsor, which already commands the necessary international cachet. The emperor or empress of Europe would then rank for representative purposes above the existing European royal houses and — as the monarch already does within the Commonwealth — over the elected heads of government. There would be no reason why the elected heads of state — such as in Ireland — should not be retained, but they might also (being now an unnecessary luxury in a United States of Europe) safely be abolished.
There remains only two more issues to be addressed. First, should the new European imperial house be the main line or a secundogeniture of the House of Windsor? If the former, then King Charles would become emperor. Secondly, should the imperial title be conceived of as an entirely new office, or perhaps — as a nod to indigenous European traditions — should be carried in a chain of succession from the old Holy Roman Empire, which ended in 1806? If the former, Charles would become Charles III and I; if the latter, he would become Charles III and VIII (the last Holy Roman Emperor to bear his name was Charles VII, who died in 1745). Alternatively, if one accepts the (unimpeachable) historical argument that the Holy Roman Emperor took precedence, he would be Charles VIII and III. We would once again have a king-emperor.
No one doubts that Charles would do a good job and is in high standing across much of mainland Europe. He is particularly popular in Germany, for example, having deeply impressed them with a speech to the Bundestag in 2020. As the son of Prince Philip, the king is in fact much more German than his late mother. That said, Charles will have a lot on his plate here, and some may think that it makes more sense to split the Windsor line to give each monarch a more manageable task. There is precedent because a previous Emperor Charles — Charles V — took a step back in 1555 and split the unwieldy Habsburg lands into a Spanish and an Austrian line.
A successful European monarchy would help to provide the EU with the common rituals it so badly lacks. The king will be very busy on this side of the Channel, but we might lend him for a few additional iconic dates in the new European political calendar, say the Easter speech, the swearing in ceremony for the Union army, and the opening of the European Senate. Admittedly, either solution may be a lot for republicans to swallow, but if it helped to bring Europeans closer together, and prevented Britain and ‘the Continent’ from drifting further apart, might the price not be worth paying?