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The queen's soft power

Hallam Mark Kommentarbild App
Mark Hallam
June 26, 2015

Royal trips abroad, and more specifically the respect Queen Elizabeth II herself commands, deserve closer attention in the UK press. DW's Mark Hallam learned this lesson with surprise as a German student, 11 years ago.

Deutschland Großbritannien Queen Elizabeth in Berlin Brandenburger Tor
Image: Reuters/J. Macdougall

I moved to Germany for the first time as a language student in 2004. That November, the queen made her fourth state visit to the country. I hadn't even realized she was coming.

It was my landlady, Cäcilia, a conservative Catholic pensioner and widow in rural Pfalz in southwestern Germany, who excitedly pointed out that Elizabeth was in town on my return from work one Tuesday.

"Are you watching? Are you going to watch?" she cooed. Baffled, I asked what she was talking about, a question that seemed almost to offend. "Your queen's here. Here in Germany!"

She had tea and cakes laid out in her living room, plus several cups - it was clear that neighbors had visited earlier in the day to watch. Briefly, I joined the party and we watched Elizabeth and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. With elections looming in Germany, my landlady quizzed me on all things royal. Why a turquoise outfit? Would this be her last visit? Might she abdicate and let Charles reign? And, perhaps most animatedly, did I think the queen would like Angela Merkel? (Despite never having asked Cäcilia how she voted in 2005, I have a hunch.)

Deutsche Welle Englisch Fußball Mark Hallam neu

Before long, however, I made my apologies and shuffled off towards my own television on the top floor: I had a date with an entirely different news channel, considering that it was November 2, the day of US President George W. Bush's re-election in the midst of the Iraq war.

Low profile at home, 'we love you, ma'am' abroad

But even as Bush, highly unpopular in Germany, claimed a second stint in the White House, the queen managed to compete for column inches and front-page spreads in the German press. As a Briton, used to the re-invented and reserved role she has forged for a 21st-century English monarch domestically, I had no idea of her popularity or profile abroad.

Eleven years on, the Windsors have returned for possibly their last state visit - and very little has changed. People are crowding the streets for hours, bedecked in union jacks, for just a glimpse of a distant, gloved, waving hand.

In a week when Greece seems as close as ever to a euro exit, Germany's top-selling "Bild" daily still found space for a huge picture of the queen out front - plus a headline written in English: "We love you, ma'am."

The raucous reception for the royals is not broadly reported at home, besides this article from the Daily Telegraph - possibly Britain's most openly royalist broadsheet.

It's impossible even to conceive of the day when David Cameron, or any British prime minister, could command a front-page spread like that. The "Frankfurter Rundschau" put it best, calling the queen "every republican's favorite monarch."

Not an advocate of European unity, a symbol of it

"As much as the Brits might irritate with their criticism of the euro, the skepticism on the EU, and their never-ending special requests, Elizabeth II is the queen of hearts," the paper wrote - tying the visit to Britain's upcoming EU referendum and Cameron's efforts to secure a new deal in Europe.

This, too, was the angle favored in many British papers - only for a rather different reason. One part of the queen's speech at Bellevue Palace, the German president's residence, caused uproar among republicans: "We know that division in Europe is dangerous and that we must guard against it in the West as well as in the East. That remains a common endeavor."

Hang on a minute, several papers asked, did the neutral queen just "campaign" for the UK not to leave the EU, and do it in Prime Minister David Cameron's presence?

Despite her theoretically limitless power - the queen is still Britain's head of state, church, and military - Elizabeth has transformed the role into one of a completely passive figurehead. That's why even the most banal, obvious claim that "division is dangerous" can be interpreted as a "campaign" in the oversensitive British press.

The thing is, whether Fleet Street journalists like it or not, Queen Elizabeth II symbolizes European reconciliation and unity in the post-war era - perhaps more than anybody else still active in public life. She volunteered for the Air Force, making components, as a princess in the Second World War. She took the throne before the EU even existed. As queen, she dined with West Germany's first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, before toddler Angela Merkel would have started primary school and before Cameron was even born. Friday's visit to Bergen-Belsen, 70 years after its liberation, serves as another reminder.

Willy Brandt, Helmut Kohl, Gerhard Schröder, Merkel, Queen Elizabeth II has seen them all. That's why she has such a following in Germany specifically. And it's also why David Cameron accompanied the queen this week as he seeks more of those "never-ending" reforms to the EU: he's realistic enough to know that in terms of recognition and reverence, Britain's hands-off queen still exudes serious soft power.

What is your view of Queen Elizabeth II's soft power? Join the discussion below.

Hallam Mark Kommentarbild App
Mark Hallam News and current affairs writer and editor with DW since 2006.@marks_hallam