Shaun Lowthorpe part of a group of journalists meeting Dutch King Willem-Alexander

Meeting the King of the Netherlands – a modern monarch with plenty to say, but don’t quote him on that

A meeting with the King of the Netherlands, really?

How do you prepare for a meeting with the King the Netherlands? *(see end)

Dutch King Willem-Alexander stands well over 6ft tall, and heartily deploys a strong, firm handshake, to the UK journalists into the Pozzi Room at the Noordeinde Palace in the Hague.

Here is a king who doesn’t appear to stand on ceremony. Sit down he says, please help yourselves to tea and biscuits.

It is a breezier less formal approach than you expect, though he seems closer in spirit to today’s younger British Royals.
Indeed, he seems more amenable and less haughty than many high-powered chief executives I can think of, and his children even go to state schools.

Modern monarch with a sense of fun

Meeting the king you quickly discover that he is… rather normal.

Like most Dutch people, he speaks excellent English, and is also a fan of our humour – Monty Python in particular, though he wishes he could master some of the finer linguistic nuances of our wit.

He explains how he admires British humour as seen in a well-delivered best man’s wedding speech. I only hope he has witnessed some good ones, though the thought of him listening bemused at what passes for most efforts is an image worth savouring.

Monarchy is a relatively recent invention in the Netherlands – at least by UK standards, being imposed on the country by Napoleon in 1806, but surviving his downfall and re-emerging with the First Constitution for the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1814, a year after the country regained its independence.

Meeting King Willem Alexander at the Noordeinde Palace in the Hague

UK-Dutch relations can survive Brexit turbulence says King

And this is a king who comes across as very modern and down-to-earth – when he is not in the air at least, as it also turns out that if you fly KLM it might be the case that he has flown one of your planes.

His Majesty is, in fact, a qualified commercial pilot and is familiar with many UK regional airports including Inverness, Aberdeen, Belfast, Manchester, and yes even Norwich…well I had to ask.

The King and Queen flew into the UK on October 23 and 24 2018 for a state visit aimed at underlining the close co-operation between our two countries as well as showcasing Dutch innovations, in particular robot technology and food production.

Views of a King but not in his own words

Royal Dutch protocol insists that the King cannot be quoted directly during any official interview – something the contingent of UK journalists collectively found difficult to get their heads around during our pre-briefing with his officials.

But that doesn’t mean that the King has nothing to say

Indeed, far from it, and during the half hour meeting he responded readily to questions ranging from his thoughts on Brexit – where he reiterated his government’s line about it being a matter of regret, but that we’ll come through it.

Nor could he see any circumstances in which national governments such as his would deal with the UK direct and go round ‘Bastion Barnier’ – aka Michel Barnier the EU’s lead Brexit negotiator.

Authenticity is key

He also deftly dealt with a question about what advice he would give to Harry and Meghan when he sees them – they will be in Australia, he pointed out, and he gave his thoughts on his role as a modern monarch.

He sees his role as seeking to unify where there is division and to represent the country abroad, while his marriage to his Argentinian wife Maxima has also helped give him reflect on the role of Monarch.

Authenticity is the most important aspect, he says – if you are portraying something you are not, you can’t maintain it.

Dutch King Willem-Alexander hopes for strong bilateral ties with the UK post Brexit

The King is proud of his country which despite its small size is second only the USA when it comes to agricultural exports. In fact, feeding the world at the end of the 21st century is one of the challenges and one which he believes the Netherlands can play a big role in tackling. Biotech and water management are also among his interests.

With trade between the two countries worth more than 60bn euros there is an emphasis on promoting those links and continuity despite the regrets of the Dutch government about Brexit.

Each of the journalists meeting the King can submit a question in advance to His Majesty.

Here’s mine:

“How important do you believe the civic, social and cultural links between our two countries will be in a post-Brexit world, and do you think they will strengthen when the EU connection is removed – ie twinning associations, schools, universities, business associations, cultural links?”

They are strong already, he notes partly due to EU programmes such as the university Erasmus exchange programme.
As neighbours we have worked together in many different forms, and the King thinks that will continue after that as well.

Strong bilateral ties

He would like to see strong bilateral ties between the two countries post Brexit and is convinced that will be the case post March 2019 when the UK was officially leaving the EU, or whenever that may now be.

Whatever happens, the Dutch people will know where to find the British, he says. Trade will change but our relations will still be very strong.

  • (Palace officials take you to an ante-room beforehand and brief you on how to address the King, and why you can’t quote him directly)

Note: I was invited to the Netherlands on a fact-finding trip with a group of journalists from the British national media.

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