The king of the Netherlands: Every question answered

The Netherlands is a modern country in many ways, but still having a royal family in the 21st century is not one of those ways. Despite valid criticism that it’s at odds with logic and fairness, the family has remained in power for over two centuries. So, let’s explore this curious phenomenon and take a closer look at the current king of the Netherlands: Willem-Alexander.

Is the Netherlands a monarchy or a democracy?

The Netherlands is generally called a democratic monarchy (or constitutional monarchy). That may sound like a contradiction. After all, if people can vote for whoever they want, then how come the same family always ends up in power? But it basically means that the Netherlands has a democratically elected parliament and prime minister as well as a king and royal family.

So, who’s actually running the country? On paper, both the elected officials and the king. In practice, however, the elected officials do most of the work and decision-making.

King and cabinet in 2022

What powers does the king of the Netherlands have?

There’s no European country where a monarch has more power than in the Netherlands. According to the Dutch constitution, only the king can appoint ministers, only the king can sign bills into law, and if he wants to, the king also has the right to dismiss the entire cabinet.

In practice, the king doesn’t actually use these powers to undermine the decisions of elected officials. That’s why Dutch people generally view his role as mostly ceremonial. But the fact remains that he has these powers, and if he ever chooses to use them in an undemocratic way, the constitution still supports that.

The king also has access to information that most people don’t. The Council of Ministers meets every week, and while the general public can only access the minutes of these meetings after twenty years, the king receives them right away.

That information can come in handy if he wants to exercise power in more subtle ways, which he can easily do if he wants to, for example, during his weekly one-on-one with the prime minister. And yes, the contents of those meetings aren’t disclosed either.

On top of all that, the king has sovereign immunity. Even though the ministers are officially appointed by him, if he breaks the law, the ministers are held accountable. Even other members of the royal family can break the law without being charged. Theoretically, there is a way to charge the king if he commits a particularly heinous crime, like murder, but the whole system is essentially designed to let him get away with as much as possible. Pledging allegiance to him is even a requirement for becoming a judge.

So, regardless of whether he uses it, the king has a lot of power for someone whose only qualification is that he was born into a specific family.

The king and his mom in 2013

How Willem-Alexander became the king of the Netherlands

The Netherlands wasn’t always one unified country. Many different kings, counts, and dukes were in charge of parts of it at different points in time. Eventually, however, it became a republic and it stayed that way for centuries. There was strong support for this form of government. Dutch people in the early 19th century did not want the Netherlands to become a monarchy.

However, the French conquered the Netherlands. And in 1806, the one and only Napoleon Bonaparte made his younger brother, Louis Bonaparte, king of the Netherlands. Neither the Dutch nor Louis himself wanted this, but Napoleon didn’t give them much of a choice. The Netherlands was suddenly a monarchy.

Interestingly, Louis actually turned out to be a good man. He learned Dutch, visited remote parts of the country, helped to combat disease outbreaks, made sure religious minorities were treated fairly, provided aid in the wake of a gunpowder disaster, responded adequately to a flood, and more. He also refused to be Napoleon’s puppet and disobeyed orders that he didn’t think were in the Dutch people’s best interest.

Because Louis actually made it impossible for Napoleon to exploit the Netherlands, Napoleon dethroned him and simply declared the Netherlands a part of France in 1810. However, his failed invasion of Russia in 1812 weakened him so much that the Netherlands was able to regain independence shortly after. A son of a once influential Dutch governor from an influential family led the troops against the French.

After Louis’s positive example of what a king could be like, many Dutch people weren’t as opposed to living in a monarchy as before. This allowed the governor’s son to turn the Netherlands into a monarchy once again, with himself as king. His name was Willem (generally Anglicized as William) and he became known as William I of the Netherlands.

William I was succeeded by his eldest son, William II, who was in turn succeeded by his eldest son, William III. William III had three sons, all named William, but they all died before him. So, he was actually succeeded by his daughter from a second marriage: Wilhelmina. Wilhelmina was succeeded by her daughter and only child, Juliana. Juliana was succeeded by her eldest daughter, Beatrix. And Beatrix was succeeded by her eldest son, Willem-Alexander, who’s the current king.

William I of the Netherlands

Orange: The Netherlands’ national color is the royal family’s name

A single family doesn’t stay in power for over two centuries without clever branding. And in the case of the Dutch royal family, that branding revolves heavily around the family name: van Oranje-Nassau. “Oranje” is the Dutch word for the color “orange.” In English, the family is referred to as the House of Orange-Nassau. In Dutch, they’re often simply called “de Oranjes.” That literally translates to “the oranges,” but the fruit orange has a different name in Dutch, so Dutch people only link it to the color orange.

“Nassau” refers to a county in modern-day Germany where some of the royal family’s ancestors lived. And one of those ancestors, now known as William the Silent, inherited a feudal state in modern-day France from his cousin when he was just 11 years old. That feudal state was called the Principality of Orange. William the Silent lived his whole life without ever visiting the Principality of Orange, but because he owned it, he was called the prince of Orange. He played an influential role in Dutch history in the 16th century, and Dutch people know him as “Willem van Oranje” (William of Orange).

So, despite the fact that this feudal state was in France, not in the Netherlands, and that “William of Orange” never even visited it, the Dutch royals have successfully turned their name into a national symbol. Every Dutch person recognizes orange as the color of the Netherlands.

This is extremely clear at international sports events. Whether we’re talking about the FIFA World Cup, the Olympics, or any other sports event where athletes represent their country, Dutch athletes almost always wear orange sportswear. Dutch national teams of any sport are often referred to simply as “oranje.” And when they win, Dutch people often say that “orange has won.”

Of course, it’s not just the athletes who wear orange. Supporters wear orange too. And decorations to show support are also orange. When Dutch athletes perform well, you see orange everywhere in the Netherlands. So, subconsciously, any national victory and shared state of euphoria gets linked to the royal family. Clever branding.

The king and two of his daughters at the Olympics in 2018

King’s Day: A Dutch public holiday to celebrate the king’s birthday

The only other time Dutch people turn the whole country orange is on King’s Day, a yearly celebration of the king’s birthday. Think of it as the Dutch equivalent of Independence Day, but instead of celebrating independence from a foreign country, the Dutch celebrate the birth of the only man standing between them and actual democracy.

This tradition began with Willem-Alexander’s great-grandmother, Wilhelmina. During her reign, it was called Queen’s Day and it was celebrated on her birthday, August 31. When Juliana took over, she kept the name but changed the date to her own birthday, April 30. Beatrix didn’t make any changes, partly because she was born in January, when Dutch weather isn’t great. But when Willem-Alexander’s reign began in 2013, he renamed it King’s Day and changed the date to his own birthday: April 27.

Because King’s Day is a public holiday, the vast majority of Dutch people get a day off. It’s quite a popular holiday, about 7 out of 10 Dutch people celebrate in one way or another.

For young adults and those who feel young at heart, the party starts the night before King’s Day. This night is referred to as King’s Night, and it’s filled with musical performances and opportunities to dance and get drunk.

On King’s Day itself, there are various activities. It’s the one day of the year where anyone is allowed to sell anything on the street without a permit, so there are lots of flea markets and outdoor games. And, of course, there are also outdoor concerts and the like. So, many Dutch people spend the day walking around with friends or family, checking out the various activities, enjoying the music and having a few drinks.

Willem-Alexander himself spends his birthday visiting a city with his family. It’s a different city every year. The so-called “Oranjecomité” (Orange Committee) of that city comes up with a whole program for the day, and everyone who’s interested in the royal family or wants to experience King’s Day without leaving their home can watch it on TV.

King’s Day in Amsterdam

Speeches, coins, streets, and other symbols of the Dutch monarchy

Support for the monarchy is heavily reliant on the orange craze during international sports events and King’s Day. However, those are not the only ways in which Dutch people are reminded of the royal family.

Willem-Alexander gives a speech twice a year, once on Prinsjesdag (which literally translates to “Little Princes Day”) and once on Christmas. The Christmas speech is simply meant to be an inspiring speech on a day that many Dutch people gather with family, but Prinsjesdag requires a short explanation.

Prinsjesdag is the day Willem-Alexander announces the government’s plans for the next year. So, it’s about the future. But it most definitely doesn’t look like a future-oriented day. Everything is done in the most traditional way possible. And sadly, it even includes archaic animal exploitation in the form of horse-drawn carriages:

The speech in which Willem-Alexander announces the plans is called the “troonrede” (throne speech). And while the percentage of the Dutch population that actually watches it is in the single digits, the highlights are mentioned on the news and elsewhere because people do want to know the government’s plans.

There are also many symbols that remind people of the monarchy in everyday life. One example is cash. Cash is playing an ever smaller role in society, but still, it’s worth mentioning that all Dutch euro coins made since 2014 have a portrait of Willem-Alexander on them. So, anyone who does use cash sees his face quite frequently.

Streets, schools, and the like are also often named after members of the royal family. This starts the moment they’re born, so Willem-Alexander already had streets named after him when he was still a child. By now, the count is in the hundreds, and some of his predecessors have even more streets named after them.

There are also references to the monarchy in some company names. The most well-known example of that is probably the Dutch airline KLM, which happens to be the oldest operating airline in the world. KLM stands for “Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij,” which literally translates to “Royal Aviation Company.” Its English name is KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. It even has a crown as a logo.

And lastly, the Dutch anthem is literally called “het Wilhelmus,” which translates to “the William.” The entire anthem is about William the Silent, the one who inherited the Principality of Orange and is known as “William of Orange” to the Dutch. He didn’t write the song himself, but it’s completely written from his perspective.

So, this one family has managed to attach themselves to so many aspects of life in the Netherlands that it’s hard for many Dutch people to separate them. Dismantling the monarchy would clearly benefit democracy, but a lot of people would experience it as losing a key part of their culture. Even though, objectively, you don’t actually need someone named Orange in power to wear orange clothes.

One of the many locations named after Willem-Alexander

The life of Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands

Now that you know how the Dutch monarchy operates, let me tell you everything about the current king that a reasonably well-informed Dutch person knows about him.

Willem-Alexander was born on April 27 in the year 1967. He was Beatrix’s first child. He has two younger brothers, named Friso and Constantijn. He was baptized as a member of the protestant Dutch Reformed Church, and it appears that he’s still religious to this day. He also mentions prayer in his speeches, albeit briefly.

He grew up with his family in castle Drakensteyn in the province of Utrecht until the year he turned 14, when the family moved to palace Huis ten Bosch in The Hague. He actually went to regular schools in the Netherlands until he turned 16, when he was sent to Wales for a few years to receive his International Baccalaureate.

Palace Huis ten Bosch

The draft no longer exists in the Netherlands, but it did when Willem-Alexander was young. So, he spent a few years in the navy, where he received tailor-made training. After that, he studied History at Leiden University. At the time, the media referred to him as “Prins Pils” (Prince Beer) for reasons that you can undoubtedly infer. After his studies, he began preparing himself for his role as king. He took an interest in various topics, including water management.

Willem-Alexander and his mom in younger years

As a young adult, Willem-Alexander got his pilot’s license. And one of the requirements to keep a pilot’s license is that you fly regularly. So, in order to meet that requirement, he’s actually a guest flyer on commercial flights twice a month. So, if you fly KLM, there’s always a small chance that he’s your pilot.

Willem-Alexander has always been passionate about sports. As a young adult, he once participated in the “Elfstedentocht,” a legendary long-distance skating event on natural ice. And he also ran the marathon of New York once. As a supporter, he’s particularly enthusiastic as well, to the point where he has been criticized by some for not behaving like royalty, but it has always been appreciated by the public.

When he was 34, Willem-Alexander married Máxima Zorreguieta, the daughter of an Argentinean politician. Máxima’s father actually served as Secretary of Agriculture in the regime of dictator Jorge Videla. This was a hot topic because Willem-Alexander needed parliament to approve the wedding in order to stay in line to the throne. Ultimately, the wedding was approved, but Máxima’s father wasn’t allowed to attend it.

Willem-Alexander and Máxima got married on 2-2-2002

It should be mentioned, though, that Willem-Alexander’s family wasn’t exactly clean either. Prince Bernhard, Queen Juliana’s husband and Willem-Alexander’s grandfather, was a German who had joined the Nazi party before World War II and was a member of both the SS and the SA. He was still a paying member of the Nazi party when he married Juliana in 1937. A Nazi song was played at the wedding gala, and Nazi guests performed the Nazi salute. Prince Bernhard even personally met Adolf Hitler once.

Of course, we shouldn’t hold Willem-Alexander responsible for the actions of his family members. Which, coincidentally, is precisely why it’s so absurd that he’s the head of the country based solely on the actions of his family members.

Almost two years after the wedding, on December 7, 2003, Willem-Alexander and Máxima had a daughter. They named her Catharina-Amalia, but she’s usually just called Amalia. If the monarchy prevails, she will be queen someday. In 2005 and 2007 they had two more daughters, Alexia and Ariane.

The last Queen’s Day was on April 30, 2013. That’s the day Queen Beatrix stepped down and Willem-Alexander became king. He was 46 at the time.

Willem-Alexander has made it clear from the start that he doesn’t want to interfere with the democratic process, and so far he appears to be true to his word. He signs what he needs to sign, and whenever he makes a political statement, it’s well-coordinated with the government.

His most notable political statement was an apology to the people of Indonesia. Indonesia was a Dutch colony until the Indonesians declared themselves independent in 1945, but the Dutch government didn’t accept that and spent four more years killing countless Indonesians in a vain attempt to regain control. Although Willem-Alexander didn’t apologize for the hundreds of years of colonization, he did apologize for the years of violence after they had declared independence, and that was an important step.

Most of the criticism he has faced has been about his luxurious lifestyle and excessive spending. But because the prime minister is officially responsible for him, he usually doesn’t have to respond to the criticism himself.

In 2016, the Dutch Broadcasting Foundation (NOS) summarized the relationship between Willem-Alexander and prime minister Mark Rutte as follows: “The king does not get in the way of the prime minister politically and the prime minister wards off the financial criticism of the king. That’s how they help each other.”

He also lost popularity in 2020, when he repeatedly ignored Covid-19 measures. The first time was in August, when he and his wife were on vacation in Greece and they were pictured ignoring the social distancing rule. And the second time was only two months later. The prime minister had just urged Dutch people not to leave the country, when he and his family flew to Greece for vacation again. The backlash was so strong that he actually cut his vacation short, flew back, and appeared on TV to apologize. But not everyone forgave him.

Willem-Alexander with his wife and daughters in 2021

A year later, on December 7, 2021, his daughter Amalia turned 18 and reportedly threw a party with about a hundred guests. This also did not go down well with the Dutch, who had just been told they could only invite four guests for Christmas.

Lastly, Willem-Alexander and Amalia both hunt. Dutch people don’t hunt. Or to be more precise: 99.84 percent of Dutch people don’t hunt. Most disapprove of it. So, you can imagine how people felt about him receiving almost a million euro a year in subsidies for managing a nature reserve and keeping it accessible to the public at least 51 weeks a year, and then closing it to the public for over three months each year to hunt animals in private.

The financial cost of the Dutch monarchy

The monarchy is expensive. So expensive, that there’s actual proof going back to the 1970s that the money flowing toward the royal family was intentionally split up into many different streams, all going through different departments, so no one would notice just how excessive the total amount was. Pressure from certain politicians and the media has resulted in more transparency, but definitely not full transparency.

To illustrate this, we’ll look at the data from 2018. That’s the year the Dutch organization Republiek (Republic) published an alternative to the government report with their estimation of the true cost of the monarchy.

According to the official Netherlands Government Information Service, the royal family cost Dutch taxpayers 59.4 million euro in 2018. And to be clear, we’re just talking about four people here: the former queen Beatrix, the current king Willem-Alexander, his wife Máxima, and their eldest daughter Amalia. They cost taxpayers over a million euro a week by their own admission.

However, Republiek said the government failed to include many expenses in their calculation. Part of those expenses were on the official government budget, but they were filed in a way that inaccurately made them seem unrelated to the royal family. Other expenses were estimated based on other available information. Ultimately, they concluded that the royal family cost taxpayers 345 million euro a year. Almost six times more than the official amount.

A big chunk of that, 192 million euro, were taxes that the royal family would have had to pay if they weren’t exempt from them. Republiek estimated the royal family’s private property to be worth roughly 12 billion euro.

So, regardless of whether it’s 59.4 million euro a year or 345 million euro a year, it’s a lot of money that could also be spent on people who actually need it.