After 33 years as the Netherlands’ head of state, Queen Beatrix will formally abdicate on Tuesday, passing the role on to her 46-year-old son.
When the newly-crowned King Willem-Alexander boards the royal barge for a triumphant tour of Amsterdam’s canals on Tuesday, one man could be forgiven for looking on rather wistfully.
Aged 46, Willem-Alexander is an immensely popular figure in the Netherlands, thanks in no small measure to his glamorous and down-to-earth wife Maxima. His family are permitted to live a low-key existence, cycling around the streets of The Hague and going into the supermarkets undisturbed. He will furthermore become the youngest monarch in Europe, following the abdication of his mother Queen Beatrix.
For Prince Charles, one of the hundreds of dignitaries gathering in the Dutch city to mark the occasion, the moment will be a strong reminder of his own position as Britain’s longest-waiting heir to the throne.
‘Impatient? Me? What a thing to suggest,’ Prince Charles joked in November. ‘Yes, of course I am. I’ll run out of time soon. I shall have snuffed it if I’m not careful.’
And while 87-year-old Queen Elizabeth has made it clear she has no intention to step aside, Queen Beatrix, 75, took a different view, announcing in January that she was stepping aside in favor of her son.
After 33 years on the throne, she explained it was “not because the burden of office is too heavy, but because of the conviction that the responsibility for our nation should now lie in the hands of a new generation.”
On Tuesday, after he is sworn in as King inside Amsterdam’s 600-year-old Nieuwe Kerk church, Willem-Alexander will become the figurehead for that new generation.
Watching him will be the heirs to many of the world’s royal households – 45-year-old Prince Felipe of Spain, Crown Prince Naruhito of Japan, 53, and 64-year-old Prince Charles – as protocol dictates that ruling heads of state shall not attend. Willem-Alexander’s brother Prince Constantijn, 43, will be there, but his other sibling, London-based financier Prince Friso, 44, remains in a coma following an avalanche while skiing last year.
At 10am Queen Beatrix will arrive at the Royal Palace in Amsterdam to sign her abdication, which will mean she reverts to the title of princess while her son becomes king. The family will then process to the central Amsterdam church for the enthronement ceremony – in the Netherlands it is not referred to as a coronation, given that there is no state religious authority to crown the monarch
And in the evening the whole of the city will erupt in a huge street party as thousands of Dutch citizens are expected to take to the streets, dancing to DJs such as Armin van Buuren following a grand water pageant along the canals of Amsterdam.
It is a suitably modern inauguration for the man who studied in Wales, earned a reputation as a party-loving “Prince Pils” – named after the Czech beer – and married an Argentine investment banker who he met while working in Madrid. He trained as a pilot, qualifying to fly both military and civilian planes, and has been known to fly official aircraft as well as planes belong to Dutch airline KLM.
“People can address me as they wish, because then they can feel comfortable,” he said last month, explaining that he was “not a protocol fetishist” and didn’t expect to be addressed as “Your Majesty”.
“We are people. People make mistakes,” he said, when asked about how he would approach his role. “If you make mistakes you must learn from them to ensure that they don’t happen again.”
Much of his “man of the people” image is credited to his wife Maxima, the daughter of an Argentine politician who he married in 2002. Maxima’s father Jorge Zorreguieta was a junior agriculture minister under the military dictatorship of Jorge Videla in the 1970s, and questions over Mr Zorreguieta’s knowledge of human rights abuses meant that he and his wife were not invited to the royal wedding.
“I regret that he did his best in a bad regime. He had the best intentions,” Maxima said in an interview ahead of the wedding.
In an interview a few weeks before the inauguration, she told the Dutch national broadcaster that her family “made a joint decision” that they would not attend Willem-Alexander’s investiture.
“It’s a constitutional celebration and, yes, my father does not belong in it.
“My wedding was a different event. It would of course be fantastic if he could be here but emotionally this is different,” she said.
They have three daughters, Catharina-Amalia, 9, who as the heir apparent will become the Princess of Orange, Alexia, 7, and Ariane, 5.
And Maxima, who is an adviser to the United Nations on granting better access to financial services for the poor, and will become Queen on Tuesday, said that for her, life will not change substantially.
Her husband, who will become the first male head of state in the Netherlands since 1880, will perhaps have less political clout than his mother.
Queen Beatrix refused to be relegated to a ribbon-cutting role, meeting weekly with successive prime ministers and earning her the nickname “chief executive officer of the Netherlands”. Known for her feistiness, she also held regular dinners for intellectuals and opinion-makers – invitees included a British newspaper editor and historians – to pick their brains.
She signed laws and has played an important role in appointing “formateurs”, who explore possibilities for coalition government after elections.
But last year marked the first time that the monarch did not play a role in forming government, and Willem-Alexander is expected to play a less overtly political role.
“Even what some people sarcastically dismiss as ‘cutting ribbons’ can have real substance. If you are careful about choosing which ribbons to cut … which events to attend … these choices can have real substance, showing what you stand for and what you think is important for the Netherlands.”
Little is known about his personal views, though people who know him say he is less formal than Queen Beatrix.
After Tuesday’s celebrations, the former Queen – a friend of Britain’s monarch, following a childhood spent in Britain when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands – will retire to a tiny hamlet in the heart of the Netherlands, where she owns a home.
Castle Drakensteyn, near Utrecht, is set in 50 acres of thickly-forested land. She bought the castle in 1959 and moved in four years later, living there with her late husband Prince Claus. Their three sons were born there and the 17th century fortress surrounded by a moat served as a family home until she became queen in 1980, on the abdication of her own mother.
Paying for the upkeep of the property will not be a problem. The Dutch monarchy is one of the wealthiest in the world, with Forbes magazine estimating that Queen Beatrix had a fortune in 2011 of £142 million, largely thanks to property and shares in Shell Oil. Liechtenstein’s royal household, led by reigning Prince Hans-Adam II, has more wealth than any other royal dynasty in Europe with £3.2 billion, thanks to the ownership of a private bank, extensive investments, and land holdings. Queen Elizabeth is thought to be worth £322 million.
The Dutch queen has enjoyed a tax-free salary of €850,000 (£715,000), and with his coronation King Willem-Alexander can expect to face further calls to take a pay-cut.
He has said he would be happy to do so. But ever the savvy, modern monarch, he has pointed out that doing so would not necessarily help his country as it would force him to make people unemployed.