Stars and Crowns: old monarchies, new states and a certain idea of Europe

By Marco Rossi | 11 August 2011

To quote this document: Marco Rossi, “Stars and Crowns: old monarchies, new states and a certain idea of Europe ”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Thursday 11 August 2011,, displayed on 28 February 2020

For a large part of European citizens and tens of millions of spectators around the globe, the 29th of April was a day to remember. Yet, while the royal wedding triggered worldwide excitement, the European Union struggles to assert its legitimacy and gain citizens’ support.

When the royal carriages rolled out of Buckingham Palace en route to Westminster Abbey, hundreds of thousands of people lined up along the Mall and Whitehall, as broadcasters of the normally unflappable BBC and CNN reported with nearly Victorian overtones. Rumors and legends surrounding what international media defined as the ‘wedding of the century’ had already started invading the air well before the fatidic date. The most bizarre requests for indiscretions and details expressed by mothers, friends and random acquaintances are still vivid recollections for any student, European or not, who had the honour or simply the fate to find himself in London during the momentous weekend. Little more than a week later, another event was supposed to gather together a European-wide public: the Europe Day. However, it passed – as for most of the years since its institution in 1985- in the uttermost silence.

The fact might be unsurprising. Few would compare the mundane magnificence of a century old monarchy to the sometimes artificious ceremonial of a young institution whose popularity and legitimacy is under serious discussion for a conspicuous number of European citizens. Nevertheless, it is more than mere fashion that leads millions of Europeans to look at the vestiges of the past, rather than at an institution which was born from the ashes of the ‘old world’ with the purpose to project Europe into the future. Perhaps this fascination remains the last vestige of a not too distant age. An age when the dynastic games of the Habsburg, the Bourbon, the Vasa or the Wittelsbach drew borders and, simultaneously, held together a mosaic of credos, allegiances and peculiarities which, all together, constituted the first embryo of a shared  ‘European identity’.

When in July 2007 the European Commission’s President Manuel Barroso hailed his idea of Europe as ‘the first non-imperial empire’ - stirring pyrotechnic reactions of the most devoted Euroskeptics, particularly in the United Kingdom - he paid a perhaps involuntary homage to that Westphalian system that the European Union was born to overcome. The refined international flair of Italian renaissance circles or the multicultural atmosphere of the seventeenth century Habsburg court contributed significantly to create a congenial environment for intellectuals from all over Europe to develop their ideas. In many cases, royal and aristocratic patronage constituted the only guarantee allowing the flower of European youth to move freely around continental universities well before any Erasmus or EU funding program was ever created. While acting on behalf of their respective patrons, royal emissaries, viceroys and explorers have frequently come to represent ‘Europe’ in the eyes of the inhabitants of the ‘new world’, in the same way as a European diplomatic service ante litteram. Figuratively, the sumptuous glorification of Europe in Tintoretto’s frescoes of the Wurzburg’s Palace, or the imperial  decrees of Charles V - who did not disdain to seal them as dominus totius europae – proved far more efficient than many Commission’s initiatives in diffusing a ‘certain idea of Europe’ among elites and commoners alike. An event as mundane as a wedding could lead entire courts to relocate in foreign countries following the bride, building long lasting pan-European links capable of overcoming the borders and the then vast distances of a largely fragmented continent.

Nowadays, such a romantic interpretation might well be downsized. The legendary ‘Christian Europe’ of Charlemagne and his Holy Roman Empire has inevitably fallen under historical revisionism and modern relativism. Even the Habsburg empire, frequently hailed as a model and precursor of a united Europe for its multiculturalism, administrative efficiency and juridical modernity was not exempt from the flaws which eventually led European monarchies to the disaster of WWI. On the whole, monarchies hold little more nowadays than a representative role even in these countries which have decided to preserve them, and a new royal union could hardly compare with its ancient equivalents. However, one point is still worth mentioning. It is interesting to remember that those sumptuous and largely exotic events, able to bring together families from countries as geographically and at times culturally far apart as Spain and  Norway, Northern Germany and Portugal, retained an eminently political character. Their chief objective was to preserve peace in tumultuous times, to craft commercial economic alliances as well as to constitute, so to say, a ‘security community’ of the time. Not always dispassionate, yet indispensable. More than love, a union of convenience, which does not differ, after all, from that European Union characterized by an intergovernmental model which still remains the most rational way to explain the dynamics of European integration today.

It is therefore rather unsurprising that in a Union of nation states, the major surviving dynasties still retain a particular place in the minds of many Europeans. In the United Kingdom, the monarchy enjoys the full trust of more than two thirds of Her Majesty’s subjects. In recent times, Scandinavian monarchies such as the Danish one continue to average approval rates beyond 80% and even the republican, liberal and very European Netherlands are still to call the legitimacy of the crown into serious question. After having won the respect of the people as careful mediators in the country’s transition to democracy, the Spanish monarchy has been among the most unabashed promoters of the country’s accession to the EU in the 1980s. In a fast-changing global context, where the European Union appears, at least at the moment, unable to provide a significant leadership, European citizens still find themselves turning, if just for one day, to the last symbols of an institution which has once been a dynamic representative of Europe and of its identity. In the end, even such an old-fashioned exaltation of national pride could turn into the last celebration of a ‘certain idea of Europe’, of that Europe of the crowns without which the Europe of the 27 stars would have hardly come into existence.

To go further

On Nouvelle Europe website

To read

  • ELLIOTT, J.H., "A Europe of Composite Monarchies , Past and Present", No. 137, The Cultural and Political Construction of Europe (Nov., 1992), pp. 48-71.
  • LE GOFF, J., L'Europe est-elle née au Moyen Âge ?, Paris, Seuil, 2003.

On the internet

Source : DSCN3620, by Sweet One, on flickr

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