Love that hat.

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Queen Shows Germans Useful Side of Monarchy

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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As I write this, hundreds of Germans are waiting patiently in front of the Hotel Adlon, where Queen Elizabeth II is staying. Very few people here would like to see Germany become a monarchy, but many like the British queen for the very reasons that make monarchies still viable in the 21st century.

She's been here for four days and everywhere thousands have turned out to see her. It's a spectacle, of course: The British monarch and her husband, Prince Philip, travel with pomp and ceremony, and Elizabeth II wears colorful clothes. Yet it's more than that. In Berlin, she made a speech in the presence of Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, in which she said:

We know the division of Europe is dangerous and that we must guard against it in the west, as well as in the east, of our continent. That remains a common endeavor.

Buckingham Palace officials have denied the words had anything to do with Cameron's plans to renegotiate the U.K.'s membership in the European Union, but German news media didn't buy it. The queen "pushed the limits of the permissible" for a monarch who is not supposed to meddle in politics, to stress that European unity is a priority, Jochim Stoltenberg wrote in the Berliner Morgenpost.

According to a recent poll, only 9 percent of Germans would like their country to have a king or queen instead of a largely ceremonial president. And even at the top, Germans don't understand how rigid and ritualized monarchs can be. President Joachim Gauck presented the queen with a painting of her as a girl astride a blue horse. The queen wasn't impressed. "That's a funny color for a horse," she said, adding that she didn't recognize the man standing next to the horse as her father, King George VI. 

Yet what Germans liked about the queen -- namely, her common sense defense of European unity -- is just another side of her traditionalism. The name of Elizabeth II is, in the words of the German tabloid Bild, "a global brand" precisely because she is pitch-perfect at playing the role for which modern monarchs are best suited: That of slightly stuffy but right-minded role models. The demand for that kind of function in government may even be increasing.

Last year, when the queen visited Australia, polls showed that the most monarchist age group in that country, where Elizabeth II is the formal head of state, was the 18-to-24s. The same is true for Germany. That may be because of the royal pageantry's entertainment value, but my guess would be that elected politicians are no more legitimate to many young people than are kings and queens. This makes a figure who stands above the political fray and gently argues for reasonable things (while wearing pretty cool dresses and jewels) unexpectedly attractive. 

Almost all the surviving monarchies -- there are 10 in Europe alone -- are popular in their countries. That's also true for the monarchies of the Middle East, where kings actually rule over the region's eight most stable countries. They are good at mobilizing "cross-cutting coalitions of popular support, coalitions that have helped to forestall mass opposition," wrote Seam Yom and Gregory Cause in a 2012 paper on "Resilient Royals."

I sometimes wish the remaining monarchs would take on a more active role. There would be loud objections if Queen Elizabeth II vetoed attempts to pull the U.K. out of the EU, but she does have veto power and contrary to popular belief sometimes uses it. So why not speak up in a matter of such grave importance for her country and Europe as a whole?

I'm pretty sure, too, that if Constantine II, dethroned in 1974, were still king of Greece, he could have made the country's negotiations with creditors less stressful and more dignified just by engaging in the kind of diplomacy that gets Elizabeth II such respect in Germany and helped Pope Francis -- an elected monarch of sorts -- bring about a thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations. 

Elected politicians don't always make decisions in the interests of their voters, and I'm not suggesting monarchs should usurp their powers when that happens. Still, there is no harm in their being able to call time-out when things are getting too hot, so that everybody can get their wits back. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net