Another Perspective on the Dutch Monarchy

Tomorrow, April 30th, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands will abdicate and turn over her throne to her son, Willem-Alexander. Since announcing her decision back in January, there’s been, roughly, 10 thousand articles in the Dutch media about it and no less than 10 million cheesy tie-ins. Walk into any supermarket in the country right now and you’ll find dozens upon dozens of products bearing images of Beatrix, Willem-Alexander and his wife Maxima. Albert Heijn has gone so far as to plan out an entire day’s worth of festivities for its customers. Even Donald Duck is getting in on the action.

If you currently reside anywhere that *isn’t* the Netherlands, there’s a good chance you have no clue who these people are and probably assume that the country sent all of its monarchs off to the guillotine in the 18th century. Nope. According to recent polls, the Dutch royals are still incredibly popular. Supposedly, 74% of the Dutch public describe themselves as supporters.

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I spent yesterday afternoon up in Amsterdam and found myself in a crowd of thousands of tourists and overly-enthusiastic locals in Dam Square, all of them snapping photos of the gigantic, inflatable crown perched high atop the Bijenkorf department store across the way. The entire city is decked out for tomorrow’s big day and even the Erotic Museum in the Red Light District has a crown over its front doors, hung with loving care. I can’t think of another image that better represents “orange fever,” as some are calling it, than this photo of, yep, a Dutchie with a fresh tattoo of Willem and Maxima on their back.

It’s all a bit mystifying to witness, especially for someone from the US. If you log into Twitter right now and run a search on “Expats in the Netherlands,” you’re sure to find plenty of them complaining about the price-tag for Beatrix’s abdication (50 million Euros in public funding and growing!) or launching snarky one-liners about the royals, comparing them to everyone from the pigs in Animal Farm to Marie Antoinette.

But if you think that the Dutch really care about what anyone from outside the Netherlands thinks about their culture and customs, well, you’ve probably never heard the name “Zwarte Piet.” Still, as many have asked over the past few months, why are the Dutch still soooo infatuated with a monarchy, especially in the year 2013? 

Some blame the “cult of personality” while more ambivalent Dutch people are quick to say “Americans have celebrities, we have Beatrix and her family.” This, of course, makes little sense since the Dutch have plenty of their own celebrities to gossip about and none of them require tens of millions in public support annually. Others claim the Dutch royals are the “public face of the Netherlands” and, much like Mickey Mouse or any other cartoonish corporate spokesman, they serve as mascots for the country and earn their keep by attracting billions of Euros in international trade and investments. But, if that’s the case, why are they relatively unknown outside of this country’s borders? Ask a foreigner what springs to mind when they think of the Netherlands and more of them are likely to say “weed and tulips” than “The Prince of Orange.”

A key component of the royals’ continued popularity, I’m sure, has to do with the fact that they don’t do much of anything. They shucked most of their duties centuries ago. They have few responsibilities, aside from attending a few annual public events and the occasional tour of another country. They leave all the governing and nastiness of everyday politics to Dutch parliament and the Prime Minister, leaving them unscathed from the consequences of unpopular decision making. It’s the same shrewd move the British royals made a few hundred years ago. “Let the politicians handle the politics. We’ll just kick back and play polo all day.”

Thus, they get all the benefits of ruling with none of the hassles and headaches of actually ruling. All of this becomes even more irritating when one hears about the Dutch royals’ agreements with the local media (“you can only take photos of us twice a year!”) and rumors about all of Beatrix’s resigned loathing for attending public events.

Despite all of this, the Dutch royals aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Nevertheless, little cracks are appearing, here and there, in their popularity. All the bickering and jibes about the “Koningslied,” a song written for Willem-Alexander’s inauguration, made international headlines last week. While collective myopia and adherence to tradition may be the secret to their continued success, there’s no question that more educated (and snarky) Dutch people are becoming more critical of their royal family.

While I was walking around Amsterdam yesterday, I found a street-art display featuring an outstretched middle-finger beside a monster eating a crown and the words “it’s 2013.” A small gallery nearby was filled with sarcastic portraits decrying the costs of all this royal upkeep. Latei, a cafe in the Red Light, had a photo of Elvis Presley sitting in its front window over a sign that read “THERE IS ONLY ONE KING.” Albert Hiejn adverts for “King Wuppie” around town were defaced with stickers for this anti-monarchy website. Check out the photos below…

Despite their high approval ratings, 44% of the Dutch public agrees that the royal family could use a pay cut and 41% say they should have fewer privileges. I, myself, am no fan of Beatrix and her brood but I enjoy the annual holiday, Queen’s Day,” celebrated in their honor. Should the Dutch ever ditch their royals, I’m sure it will easily convert into “Nederland Dag,” a holiday that will allow the Dutch to celebrate their country with pride instead of mindlessly adhering to outdated conventions.

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