What King Charles really thinks about the European Union
The King has always had an uncanny knack of being strategically well-placed when key Brexit moments have happened.
When the Government triggered Article 50 to leave the European Union on March 29, 2017, the then Prince Charles was in Romania extolling the virtues of post-Brexit cooperation between the two countries.
With just weeks to go before the Brexit transition period ended in November 2020, the 74-year-old was in Berlin, where he stressed the “great pride” he felt in being able to renew the UK’s “enduring bond” with Germany. So perhaps it was only fitting that the monarch was meant to be travelling to Paris on Sunday following Wednesday’s passing of the Windsor Framework through the House of Commons.
He and the Queen were to split their time between the French capital and Bordeaux before returning to Berlin on Wednesday to a ceremonial welcome at the Brandenburg Gate.
The French leg has since been called off owing to protests, which saw graffiti daubed on a Parisian wall reading: “Charles III do you know the guillotine?”
But the red carpet will still be rolled out by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German president hosting a state banquet at the Schloss Bellevue.
The visits were designed to “celebrate Britain’s relationship with France and Germany, marking our shared histories, culture and values”. Buckingham Palace says the trip would “also provide an opportunity to look forwards and demonstrate the many ways the UK is working in partnership with France and Germany, whether that be to tackle climate change; respond to the conflict in Ukraine; seize trade and investment opportunities or share the best of our arts and culture”.
Coming after the King courted controversy for taking tea with Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, at Windsor Castle as the ink was drying on Britain’s new deal with Brussels, the tour is still set to pack a significant soft power punch as the UK attempts to rest its relationship with its closest European neighbours.
Boasting all the pomp and pageantry of any major royal occasion, His Majesty will address the Bundestag, the federal parliament – a first for a British monarch – before travelling with the Queen to Hamburg to attend the St Nikolai Memorial, the remains of a church destroyed when the Allies bombed the city during the Second World War.
Cancellation aside, so typically royal tour-ish – but what is the significance of a visit designed to “speak to the strength of the United Kingdom’s bilateral relationships with France and Germany”? And does it speak to any pro-EU sympathies on behalf of Charles III?
Although members of the monarchy have never publicly expressed a view on Brexit, that hasn’t stopped the commentariat from taking an educated guess.
When The Sun carried a front-page story headlined “Queen Backs Brexit” in March 2016, three months before the EU Referendum on June 23, the newspaper was forced to issue a grovelling apology after the Independent Press Standards Organisation ruled that it represented a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information in breach of Clause 1 (i) of its Code of Practice.
The article reported that Queen Elizabeth II had “let rip” at Nick Clegg, the former deputy prime minister, informing him of her belief that the European project was heading in the wrong direction.
The newspaper quoted a “senior source” as saying that people who heard their conversation “were left in no doubt at all about the Queen’s views on European integration”. Mr Clegg later blamed former Vote Leave frontman Michael Gove, now the Levelling Up Secretary, for the leak, saying it was “preposterous” to think the story was true. Mr Gove has always denied any involvement.
But the row raised questions about the Brexit sympathies of the royals, with one former minister recalling “it was the talk of the Commons tea room that the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh supported Brexit while Prince Charles and Prince William supported Remain but it was only ever gossip. I don’t think the rumours had any basis in fact.”
What’s certain, however, from the speeches he has given over the years, is that Charles believes Britain should keep Europe close. Never was this more in evidence than when he spoke of the “enduring connections” between the UK and Germany as negotiators prepared for post-Brexit trade talks to continue in November 2020.
Speaking mostly in German, the then heir to the throne appeared to express a bit of “Bregret” when he echoed the famous words of poet John Donne, saying “no country is really an island”. Making his most direct public reference to Brexit since Britain voted to leave the EU four years earlier, he said officials may be in the process of negotiating the “shape” of the two nation’s relationship but its “essence” was down to the “connection” between its people. “The United Kingdom has chosen a future outside the European Union, and the relationship between our countries is evolving once again,” he said.
“It is, therefore, my heartfelt belief that the fundamental bond between us will remain strong: we will always be friends, partners and allies.”
One former royal aide recalls the poignancy of a speech 18 months earlier, delivered at the British Ambassador’s residence in Berlin on May 7, 2019, when Charles declared that whatever the outcome of the Brexit process, the bonds between the UK and Germany “will, and must endure”. Describing Germany as the UK’s “natural partner”, he said he recognised that with Brexit still at an impasse, relations between the two countries are “in transition”.
“Today, we are so much more than simply neighbours: we are friends and natural partners, bound together by our common experience, mutual interests and shared values, and deeply invested in each other’s futures,” he insisted. “As we look towards the future, I can only hope that we can also pledge to redouble our commitment to each other and to the ties between us.”
To Leavers, it sounded suspiciously like a call for continued alignment with the biggest economy in the EU.
But according to the aide, it was more of a reflection of longstanding royal connections.
“He’s always been very warm towards Europe and that was a particularly heartfelt speech. For many years the Royal family didn’t talk about their Germanic ties at all but during that trip, he was keen to speak about the familial link which was quite unusual. Everybody gets hot under the collar about what he thinks personally – he’s got his own views as everybody does – but he’s very pragmatic. I heard him talk about the consequences of Brexit in terms of the changes it would mean in terms of agriculture. But he never criticised Brexit itself. He sort of saw it in terms of, there are going to be changes, but there might also be opportunities.
“There will no doubt be people who swear blind it was another way but I’d say he’s a pragmatist when it comes to politics but passionate when it comes to political ties.”
While he may not have expressed an opinion in public, the King’s speeches and interactions with leaders on all sides of the debate leave no doubt that he has had lengthy discussions on the subject of Brexit.
Indeed, when he and the Queen visited Belfast following the death of his mother last September, Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, said he had expressed a “keen interest” in the Northern Ireland Protocol and its impact on power sharing in the province.
Having repeatedly defended Britain’s small farmers as “the backbone of our rural communities”, he will share concerns about the prospect of post-Brexit trade deals with the likes of Australia and New Zealand flooding the market with cheaper meat.
And then, of course, there is the impact of Brexit on climate change. Over the years, the King has become increasingly vocal on the need for the world to act together on environmental matters and he will no doubt also share fears that the UK’s departure from the EU has weakened Brussels’ leadership on the issue.
He has made no secret of the fact that he believes Europe must lead the way. In 2008, he delivered a hard-hitting speech to the EU Parliament, his first there in 16 years, in which he warned that “the doomsday clock of climate change is ticking ever faster towards midnight.”
Criticising the bloc for failing to provide sufficient leadership, particularly from the point of view of citizens, who he said often see “nothing but argument, disagreement and prevarication”, he questioned whether Europeans had the “courage to weave climate change considerations into the fabric of every aspect of European development”.
Likening fighting climate change to fighting a war, he said a “courageous and revolutionary” approach was needed from the EU as a “leader on the world’s stage”, to avoid disaster.
Three years later, in 2011, he returned to Brussels to speak at the Low Carbon Prosperity Summit at the European Parliament. Praising the EU for setting a target of reducing greenhouse gases by 20 per cent by 2020, he called for the bloc “to do more today to avert the catastrophes of tomorrow”. He suggested the use of “smart subsidies” to “target a diversity of production in more specific ways while protecting public goods” and called for “an integrated set of long-term public policies and instruments to encourage a green economy”.
Naturally, the orations did not sit well with Nigel Farage, the former UKIP and Brexit Party leader who was an MEP from 1999 to 2020.
He said: “I was at both speeches and was appalled at his call for the EU to have more power. He seemed to hold the EU institutions in high regard.”
Mr Farage was one of the fiercest critics of the King’s meeting with Mrs von der Leyen, tweeting that it was “absolutely disgraceful” of Rishi Sunak to “even ask the King to get involved in something that is overtly political in every way”.
Confusion still reigns over who requested the meeting, with Buckingham Palace insisting it was the Government and the Prime Minister’s official spokesman saying the meeting was “fundamentally” a decision for Buckingham Palace.
The King’s spokesman said at the time: “The King is pleased to meet any world leader if they are visiting Britain and it is the Government’s advice that he should do so.” A palace insider clarified: “The suggestion that the King was somehow part of the negotiations is for the birds.”
Government insiders have also pointed out that it suited Mr Sunak’s purposes to have the King involved – and name the deal the Windsor Framework to give it the patina of royal approval. As one source puts it: “The unionists love the Royal family so it was a ploy to get them onside.”
According to Lord Soames, the former Tory MP for Mid Sussex who is a close personal friend of the King, “there’s no politics in any of it”.
“The King only acts on the advice of his ministers. One of the very few things remaining to us for our global Britain status is our soft power – and the royals stand at the pinnacle of it. Now that Brexit is done and there is a new bilateral relationship being built, visits to France and Germany are of immense importance.”
With republican sentiment on the rise, particularly in the Caribbean following Barbados’s decision to cut its royal ties, some believe the King and Queen would have been wiser to visit a Commonwealth country. Despite this, another European destination is being mooted for their next trip: the Republic of Ireland.
Although Buckingham Palace has not commented on the rumours, it has been suggested that the King would like to emulate the success of his late mother’s 2011 tour of the country, which some regard as the most historic overseas visit of her 70-year reign.
Officials and security services on both sides of the border are reported to be readying themselves for a royal visit after the Coronation this summer. County Louth is thought to be on the schedule as one of the 11 border counties that Charles has not yet visited. According to one minister, such a visit would be seen by the Dublin and London governments as being “part of the continuing choreography to get the Northern Ireland Assembly up and running again”.
The King may be apolitical, but, as with his visit to Europe, it is impossible to ignore the politics at the heart of the newly-minted royal travel schedule.