Republicanism, scandals and austerity: Europe's royals start to feel the pinch

Republicanism is growing as scandals erupt and subjects are forced to tighten their belts

Brussels

He may be a member of one of Europe's more popular royal families, but Crown Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands has not had the easiest few weeks. First there was a movement to cut his salary to the level of a bank manager's. Then his future subjects rebelled against the jarring song released to celebrate his accession to the throne.

But as he takes over from his mother, Queen Beatrix, on Tuesday in all the pomp and pageantry of a coronation, he can find comfort in the fact that matters are far worse elsewhere in Europe.

King Juan Carlos of Spain's daughter may have to appear before a magistrate next month to answer questions about her husband's tax dealings. The Swedish king's alleged penchant for nude dancers has sent his support plummeting to less than 50 per cent. Belgium's dowager queen has had her allowance slashed after plans to squirrel her inheritance away tax-free provoked uproar.

As unemployment soars across the continent and the recession forces households to tighten their belts, royal displays of opulence are simply no longer acceptable. Many Europeans back the abdication of ageing monarchs – whether they be alleged philanderers, spendthrifts, or simply out-of-touch – and are demanding increased scrutiny of exactly where the royal millions go.

"I think the new generation of members of the royal families will try to symbolise that they are more informal, that they don't need the same level of wealth as the older generation," says Lars Hovbakke Sorensen, a lecturer in modern history at the University of Copenhagen.

King Juan Carlos appears to have turned a deaf ear to the suffering of his compatriots. Unemployment in Spain is now 27.2 per cent. More than half of the nation's young people are out of work. So when photographs appeared last year of the king – then an honorary president of the Spanish branch of WWF – wielding a gun and posing in front of a dead elephant during a Botswana safari, there was widespread disgust.

Potentially more damaging to the Spanish monarchy, the king's youngest daughter, Princess Cristina, has been called to appear before a magistrate in Palma over allegations that her husband, Inaki Urdangarin, channelled money for a charity into private accounts. He has denied any wrongdoing, and the hearing has been postponed as judges debate whether there is enough evidence for the princess to remain a suspect.

As Carolyn Harris, author of the Royal Historian blog, points out, most of Europe's 12 remaining monarchies are in northern Europe, not the countries hardest hit by the eurozone crisis.

But austerity is not limited to the Mediterranean. The Red Cross is distributing food aid across Europe at levels not seen since the end of the Second World War. In Belgium, record numbers are relying on food packages. So Belgians were not particularly impressed with news earlier this year that Queen Fabiola planned to set up a private fund which would shield some of her fortune from inheritance tax by channelling it to relatives in Spain.

The purple-rinsed widow of King Baudouin was not accused of breaking any laws, but the government moved quickly to quell the controversy, vowing to slash her yearly stipend by nearly half a million euros and to look into perks enjoyed by other members of the royal family.

Mr Sorensen says swift action was vital: Belgium is deeply divided between the Flemish-speaking north and French-speaking south, and the monarchy is seen as one of the country's few unifying institutions: "When you have problems with the royal house in Belgium, then it's also a threat to the Belgian state."

Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands is widely seen to have tapped in to the public mood when she announced her abdication in February. Throughout her 33-year reign she has proven to have a deft touch with the population, and is credited with uniting the Netherlands despite social upheaval. When her middle son, Prince Johan Friso, was left in a coma in an avalanche in Austria last year, there was an outpouring of public sympathy. A poll in 2011 showed support for the monarchy at 75 per cent.

But attitudes are shifting. There was surprise in the Netherlands when a survey last year showed that the Dutch royal family cost taxpayers more than any other monarchy in Europe. "We are suffering in the crisis and a lot of people are not sure about their jobs and they have cuts in their wages, and the royal family didn't give the idea that they care," says Anjo Clement, president of the Netherlands Republican Society.

Last week's controversy – 40,000 people signed a petition to withdraw the pop-rap hybrid penned for Prince Willem-Alexander's inauguration – showed that the royals are no longer treated with unquestioning reverence. A poll earlier this month also showed that 70 per cent of people think Prince Willem-Alexander, 45, should earn less than his mother, who takes home €850,000 a year. Most people surveyed by RTL News thought that between €250,000 and €500,000 would be a more appropriate salary for her son, a water management expert once known as "Prince Pils" for his partying ways.

Mr Clement claims his republican society has seen its membership triple since the abdication of Queen Beatrix. While there is not enough Europe-wide polling since the beginning of the financial crisis to show if it has had an effect on levels of republican sentiment, analysts say there is certainly a desire for increased scrutiny. "It's interesting that the royal family of the Netherlands now issues annual reports," says Ms Harris, who teaches at the University of Toronto. "So even though the expenditure isn't being reduced there is more accountability."

Overall, Europe's royal families enjoy broad backing. Even in Spain, where support for a republic has risen from 11 per cent in the 1990s to 37 per cent today, people do not forget that it was King Juan Carlos who helped to foster the transition to democracy after the Franco dictatorship. In many of the tiny states where monarchies still reign – Andorra, Monaco, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein – the economies are faring better and the gossip of the royal families provides light relief.

A poll in the UK last year showed support for the monarchy was at an all-time high, boosted by the royal wedding and the Diamond Jubilee. Denmark has the most popular royal family in Europe, enjoying 80 per cent support, while in Norway the oil boom has kept living standards high and most people are supportive or indifferent towards their monarchy.

While Scandinavian royals have generally been praised for adapting to modern times, they are not immune to crisis. A book published in 2010 made allegations that King Carl XVI Gustaf lived a lavish lifestyle that included trips to strip clubs. Although he denied the majority of the claims, his inept handing of the crisis, and an interview in which he admitted visiting the Folies Bergères in Paris "where ladies are scantily clad", did him little good.

If Europe's monarchs want to survive, Mr Sorensen says, royal families need to set an example in tough times: "They can turn it into a positive thing. People in times of economic crisis need to dream and they need to have something that can unite the nation."

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