Thursday, October 13, 2016, 3:52 pm. King Rama IX of Thailand breathes his last at the Siriraj Hospital of Bangkok, bringing an end to the longest-running reign of the planet. The disappearance of the King throws the country into despair: the subjects mourn the Great Guide in the streets, getting ready for a year of grief and prayers in memory of the Father of the Nation. He will be succeeded by his reckless son Maha, now under the protection of the military junta that rules the country.
At the instant of His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej’s trespassing, 44 countries in the world – about 8% of the world population – are headed by a monarch.
The monarchies are mainly concentrated in four areas of the globe: Europe (north-western quadrant), Central America (Caribbean), the islands of South-East Asia/Oceania, and Middle East.
The largest group is that of the European States, 12: seven great nations – United Kingdom, Spain, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Netherlands – and five micro-states – Luxembourg, Andorra, Liechtenstein, Principality of Monaco, and Vatican City.
Most contemporary monarchies – including Thailand – are constitutional, and in many cases the role of the Head of State is only ceremonial, with less power than republican Presidents. Also, many of these countries are not perceived as prominent entities at an international level. So, for many, the surpassing of the monarchical form, legacy of the past, is no more a priority.
Sovereigns register peaks of popularity, and there is almost no trace of the old intolerance for what the monarchy has always represented. The royal families who were able to resist the modern anti-monarchist waves – in the 19th century, at the end of the World Wars, and during the decolonization – are generally seen as an element of folklore, symbol of a prestigious tradition.
Republican parties are absent or in crisis. In Spain, the debate on the monarchy is still alive, but republicans are a minority and their prospects are fragile. Australia, after the referendum failed in 1999, has hypothesized the transformation into a republic at the end of Elizabeth II’s rule, but Her consensus is high. In the UK and Canada, progressive and liberal parties underline emphatically that putting an end to the monarchy is not their battle. Elsewhere, this battle is non-existent or is entrusted to associations that have marginal political weight.
However, monarchies are still an issue. Especially for Europe, and for all those countries for which democracy is a fundamental value. Even if the contemporary sovereign is no longer an absolute ruler.
The monarchy is today what it has always been: the image of a stratified society, divided into castes. Less relevant than yesterday (?), but still a brake for social mobility. The royal families and the old and new nobilities (their corollary)on the top of the pyramid contradict the hypothesis of equality at the base of Constitutions and democracy.
The monarch is the custodian of national unity. With at least two consequences.
On one side, nationalism: “we”, the Nation under the King and the Flag, we are different from “them”, the foreigners. And power cannot be shared with foreigners. The sovereign is above everyone, by definition. He can be inter pares only as primus.
The second consequence is more subtle. The king acts as a guarantor in conflicts, is the peacemaker of the internal divisions. The presence of the king, expression of the balance between national potentates, is alternative to the democratic process, which aims to resolving the conflicts by means of an open political debate. The monarchic one is a distorted unity, aimed at keeping the parts at bay with a personal synthesis (the king) rather than finding a deep political, social, economic, cultural synthesis. Behind the monarch hide the unhealed fractures of the nation (Thailandia docet). This explains why the three European countries with the strongest separatist movements – Spain, Belgium, and United Kingdom – are monarchies.
The issue is not just theoretical, philosophical. First of all because, actually, the political weight of the monarchs is not zero. The king is a fulcrum of power – that is, a person whose stance is relevant, should be taken into special consideration – in (or linked to) not-so-secondary national entities. Both in terms of public opinion and, probably more importantly, in terms of diplomacy.
The most powerful religious leader of the Earth (the Pope) is a monarch (absolute, although elected). An emperor reigns over the fourth world economy (Japan). Queen Elizabeth II rules, by Divine grace, the 16 countries of the Commonwealth realm, and her opinion does not go unnoticed. Three countries in Scandinavia, the land of wellbeing and happiness, are reigned by a monarch. Even the President of the French Republic, the supreme symbol of the fight against monarchy, shares the title of co-prince of Andorra.
About 17% of global GDP comes from monarchies. A third of the world’s oil is produced in countries headed by a monarch, accounting for about 42% of the reserves of black gold. Old and new aristocracies safeguard this wealth and its distribution, influencing the concentration and the dynamics of power in the energy industry.
The same goes for taxation, always a priority for crowns. Sixteen of the 44 monarchies feature in the lists of offshore financial centres. Several overseas possessions of two illustrious monarchies – the UK and the Netherlands – are tax havens. The sovereignty of Luxembourg, Bahrain and the UAE are among the 10 countries that best protect bank secrecy, providing excellent guarantees to those who hide money. Many of these countries – especially the Arabs, but also Bahamas, Brunei, Andorra – pledge dream tax rates, oscillating between 0 and 10% both for businesses and for individuals. Once again: the king and the aristocracy around him are very suitable to stand up in defense of inequalities. More than republican parliaments, perhaps.
Rampant nationalism, hindrance to the creation and functioning of federations of States. Crippled democracies, inefficient and ineffective, undermined by inequalities. Concentration of power, especially in the energy sector. Tax havens and hidden wealth. If we believe that these are some of the major contemporary evils, monarchies are still an issue. They do not constitute their founding element, probably, but they are one of the structural features fostering these pathologies.
Surpassing the monarchy would not be a decisive step, probably, but it would be a step, a needed one. For the world and particularly for Europe, living in contradiction between advanced democracies and stale regimes. The Europe of peoples can be created only after having definitively buried the Europe of nations and of the kings that still rule on Her.
Feature image: Conor Harrington, Modern Monarchy (2012)