In July, Otto von Habsburg, Archduke of Austria, Crown Prince of Austro-Hungary, Royal Prince of Hungary and Bohemia, of Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia, Lodomeria and Illyria, passed away at the age of 98. As the last remaining heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, this death represented the conclusion of a royal dynasty which in its heyday was the most powerful political force in continental Europe.
Despite his noble birth, however, von Habsburg should not be remembered because of his ancestors but because of his own political achievements. As a passionate supporter of European integration, von Habsburg was a former member of the European parliament and played an instrumental role in the integration of the former Soviet states to the European Union.
Unlike many European monarchs, von Habsburg renounced his claim to the throne in 1961 and lived as a private citizen, and later as a politician. Yet many supposedly advanced European democracies still retain a monarch who is nominally the head of state and on whose behalf the country is governed by elected representatives. Often these individuals and their families receive public funds and are treated with respect and deference by their citizens.
But why is this? What is the advantage of retaining this outdated and undemocratic institution at the taxpayer’s expense?
The primary role of the modern European monarch is a public relations tool. Much like China’s sending its antiquities out across the globe or Michelle Obama’s visit to Kenya, monarchs can be dispatched to partner states to court political goodwill and enamor foreign politicians. This is also the benefit of retaining an entire royal family; even minor relatives of the current head of state can be used in this manner, with the more important relationships requiring more important royals.
The modern monarchy can also serve as a useful tool for democratic governments to distract the electorate and the media from failed policy. Perhaps the best example in recent times was the exploitation of the wedding of William Windsor and Kate Middleton by the British government. British Prime Minster David Cameron faced severe criticism for his recently announced plans to substantially cut public spending in the UK. Coincidentally, around the same time came the news that the grandson of the monarch intended to get married. Then, several months later, when it became apparent that the British economy was failing to recover despite the dramatic reforms enacted by the government, what reason did they give? Apparently the economy failed to grow because, in part, everyone in Britain was given a day off for the royal wedding.
There should be no illusion that European monarchs retain any authority themselves; the contemporary royal is a servant of the liberal-capitalist government. Any political or legal power possessed by the monarch’s ancestors has long since been eroded. As feudalism was superseded by capitalism and the liberal revolutions began to spread across the globe, the monarchies of Europe found themselves in an increasingly precarious position. Those able to survive the transition alive were generally permitted to retain their titles provided they became subservient to the newly formed democratic-capitalist authority.
So, what is the role of a modern monarchy? Whatever the government needs it to be.
Photo Credit: it's a foot!