Netherlands’ Willem-Alexander Might Not Be Trade King

The Dutch like to think of their monarchy as an economic asset, but there’s little proof.

The Netherlands’ new king Willem-Alexander is expected to join a long line of royals who have promoted Dutch economic interests but it is doubtful whether he can have much of a commercial impact.

Willem-Alexander became the Netherlands’ first male sovereign in over a century on Tuesday when his mother, Beatrix, abdicated. He will play a largely ceremonial role in the Netherlands’ constitutional monarchy. While his predecessors used their power to appoint mediators in coalition talks after elections and were thus able to steer the formation of a new government, parliament stripped the monarch of this prerogative last year and now appoints such negotiators itself.

With few political responsibilities at home, except for a weekly consultation with the prime minister, Willem-Alexander and his wife, the former Argentinian investment banker Máxima Zorreguieta, now queen, might devote even more of their time to promoting Dutch commercial interests abroad than Beatrix did.

A role model could be the Netherlands’ first king, William I, a descent of William the Silent who led the Dutch revolt against the Spanish in the Eighty Years’ War. Installed after French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat at Waterloo, he financed the construction of canals and roads throughout the Netherlands by mortgaging crown estates and established the Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij in 1824 to reinvigorate Dutch overseas trade after the French domination — also to great personal financial gain.

The monarchy is still widely considered by the Dutch to be an economic asset. 55 percent of investors polled by ING bank in early April said they believed the royals’ presence at trade missions improved companies’ chances of gaining footholds abroad. Employers’ organizations in January said they expected the new king and queen would continue “to play a major role in strengthening our economic missions.”

Evidence is lacking.

Economy professor Harry van Dalen reckoned in 2007 that the monarchy was responsible for between €4 and €5 billion in annual growth, or 1 percent of gross domestic product, a figure that was widely reported in Dutch news media.

But those estimates are disputable because they arose from a comparison in economic performance between monarchies and republics. The former are almost all rich European countries or oil exporting Arab Gulf states whose economic success has probably less to do with the absence of an elected head of state than favorable market conditions or the abundance of natural resources.

Dutch trade with some of the countries Queen Beatrix visited after 2000 grew but there was no direct correlation nor proof that she contributed concretely, even if Dutch multinationals usually praised her efforts.

The new king’s own attempt in 2011 to help the Port of Rotterdam Authority secure a joint exploitation agreement with its Vietnamese counterpart failed. He and his wife accompanied a trade delegation to the Southeast Asian country that year.

The monarchy’s business ties haven’t been without controversy. Former queen Juliana’s husband Prince Bernhard was forced to relinquish his military post in 1976 after an inquiry revealed that he had accepted a $1 million bribe from aircraft manufacturer Lockheed to influence the government’s fighter jet purchases.

More recently, questions were raised about Beatrix’ state visits to Brunei, Qatar, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates, all countries where oil major Royal Dutch Shell has interests.

Last year, the Dutch royal family cost taxpayers just under €40 million, comparable to what the British pay their monarchs but more than the estimated €26 million the Germans spend on their presidency.

Those figures discount expenses for palace maintenance, security and state visits, however. Altogether, the Dutch monarchy might cost as much as €110 million per year.

Most of the Dutch are willing to foot the bill. 78 percent are in favor of keeping the monarchy, up from 74 percent a year ago, according to an Ipsos poll.