The monarch is making his mark as a diplomat
March 31, 2023 9:45 am(Updated 9:46 am)
How does the former Prince of Wales, a man known for being spiky, opinionated and sporadically petulant, segue into the role of King: a job which foregrounds soft skills over polarising outbursts about pet subjects and lobbying politicians in spiky correspondence?
The answer is emerging in plain sight from the King and Queen’s outing to Germany this week as the nation’s primary bearer of institutional good will does the “Berlin round” for A-list visitors. This includes a speech to parliament under the Norman Foster glass domes reception by the German head of state (considerably less glitz than the British version in a staid Bellevue place), a visit to a green energy project and joining troop training in Hamburg.
The answer to how to let “Charles be Charles”, without inviting pre-coronation stress about meddling, is not to try to stop him being involved in global affairs, from the Brexit healing process to addressing climate change. The planning is in lockstep with grand strategy, agreed with Number 10 and the Foreign Office. So the talking point when the King made a brave assault on the German language in front of the Bundestag (parliament), was the message of a “renewed friendship” (which is a nice way of suggesting that leaving the EU messed up the old one) and a purposeful sense of shared democratic values.
Other focuses – the net zero quest (an elastic target in Germany and the UK) and making common cause against Russian aggression – sounded bland. But they are examples of Charles’s remit being established in the early part of his reign as being about more than handshaking and crowd-waving and scoping out rights to intervene on serious matters which will shape his epoch on the throne and beyond. The vow to “strengthen the connections” between the two countries and disquisitions on ties “growing stronger than ever” are more than standard messages of friendship. Linguistic details matter in diplomacy and pretty much every endorsement Charles gave of the abiding Anglo-German relationship were about future co-operation – a tactic which makes backsliding harder.
Like his pre-blessing of the Windsor Framework, when he met he EU Commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, to nudge along Rishi Sunak’s prototype solution to the Northern Ireland trade stand-off, Charles waded in where previous monarchs (including his late mother) often trod more cautiously by blessing the policy before it received parliamentary scrutiny. Constitutional purists sulked, but the pragmatic message from the new monarch is that he is prepared to put “skin in the game” if he believes that what he is embracing is beneficial.
Charles, remember, is a man who waited decades for his era at the helm. “Who really wants to be 70?” As his pithy wife Camilla put it in an interview last year. That sense of time snapping at his heels is a part of his drive to reshape the job and lean into global affairs with his own imprint. If his mother was a “global queen”, loved and admired around the world for her poise and longevity, Charles is making Europe his first major project. The matching visit to France has been postponed to avoid the awkwardness of a King and Queen stepping around piles of rubbish and burning street furniture in the protests against a rising pensions age (the echoes would have been a bit too Marie Antoinette for comfort).
He does however have a way of making his point. A reported retort to the Rwanda plan aimed at dealing with the boats problem and those arriving illegally to seek asylum that it is “appalling” and ungenerous are hardly secret. The tribute to Germany’s “extraordinary hospitality in hosting over one million Ukrainian refugees,” seemed to underline that view.
Does Charles still have his more jagged edges? As someone who has heard his views on the British education system (not enough history and a registered dislike of “child-centred education” – code for progressive theories of learning), it’s hard to imagine a figure in late life accustomed to large dollops of deference with his cornflakes as become a views-free zone. But the impact of his marriage to Camilla and even the travails of his family misery in the shape of the falling out with Harry have, if not modernised the man, made him less rigid and hectoring.
Still his plan for a “slimmed down” monarchy has been effected with a sharpness including abrupt evictions on the royal estate (Harry and Meghan’s belongings bundled out to be shipped across the Atlantic). A prompt to his embattled brother Andrew to leave his large residence has resulted in an unresolved stand-off, as Charles resists any return by the Duke of York to public life. An impending reshuffle of staff which is likely to result in royal redundancies indicate that as “Chairman” of the Royal firm, he is wants to sow a changed monarchy as much as being the continuity candidate by birth.
It would be a stretch to say that a figure who will bear the crown for the first time in May can become a world figure in the same way that his mother built up from the early 1950s. Royalty is a currency which acquires value and affection with longevity. The first steps however have been seen this week – a British monarch with a European mission, King not just of Little Britain, but one who tends to make his mark in the changing world beyond.