April 22, 2024

It’s second time lucky for King Charles’s first overseas state visit, when he touches down in Germany on Wednesday.

It should have begun at the weekend in France, but when it looked like the King was flying into a riot zone the initial stage of the visit had to be postponed.

The French protests were a reminder that even fairy-tale palaces have real-world political consequences, and it became impossible for President Macron to host King Charles at Versailles, with the prospect of angry protesters outside the gates.

A bouquet of tear gas and unemptied bins wasn’t exactly the right atmosphere for the diplomatic courtship of a state visit.

Pension protests in FranceIMAGE SOURCE,EPA
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Street protests over pension reforms stopped the King’s planned visit to France

So, several days later than planned, a curtailed trip is getting under way again, with King Charles and Camilla, the Queen Consort, arriving in Berlin for a three-day visit.

But the underlying purpose remains the same. There is a symbolic importance attached to the first state visit of a new reign – and this is about showing that Europe is the UK’s diplomatic priority.

“There is an obvious rationale for the visit – to improve relations after Brexit,” says Sir Vernon Bogdanor, leading constitutional expert and historian.

Such trips are made on the advice of the government and all the background briefings have been that this will be an important statement about rebuilding relationships with European neighbours.

This is the first state visit by a British monarch for eight years and it will reinforce what Buckingham Palace called “shared histories, culture and values”.

It follows a meeting between the King and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen when a Northern Ireland Brexit deal was announced.

King Charles in Germany, 2019IMAGE SOURCE,GETTY IMAGES
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King Charles on a visit to Germany in 2019

After Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953, her first trip was a tour of Commonwealth countries.

For King Charles. 70 years later, the priority is to build bridges with European allies, particularly at a time of pressure over Ukraine.

Author and historian Sir Anthony Seldon said it was a message to Germany that “Britain might have left the European Union, it is not leaving the most powerful country in Europe”.

That this was originally planned as a dual trip to France and Germany was a signal that neither country’s importance to the UK could be questioned, they were both being given equal billing, says royal expert Prof Pauline Maclaran.

Perhaps some of the more dramatic moments would have been in France – “what could be more cinematic than travelling down the Champs-Elysees?”, says Prof Maclaran.

But this is about realpolitik as well as rapprochement, and King Charles will become the first British monarch to give an address to Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag.

St NikolaiIMAGE SOURCE,GETTY IMAGES
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The royal couple will lay wreaths at St Nikolai in Hamburg, damaged by wartime Allied bombing

Also, on the state visit:

  • There will be a ceremonial welcome with military honours at the Brandenburg Gate, claimed as the first such greeting for a head of state visiting Germany. A state banquet will be held at the German president’s Bellevue Palace.
  • In Hamburg, there will be a focus on reconciliation, when the King visits the St Nikolai Memorial, a ruined church kept in memory of the Allied wartime bombing of the city. The church was designed by the English architect George Gilbert Scott, also responsible for the Foreign Office building in London.

Expect to hear some German spoken by the King, after all he has strong family ties to the country, and there will be plenty of references to environmental causes and supporting refugees from Ukraine.

Soft power

But what impact will King Charles’s trip make? Do state visits particularly cut through in the 21st Century?

“It’s a really big deal”, and will make a much bigger impression than a PM’s visit, says Sir Anthony Seldon, who argues “we consistently underestimate the significance”.

For better or for worse, King Charles is an instantly recognisable, global figure; wherever he goes there will be cameras, commentary and crowds.

“The monarch is a central part of how the UK projects soft power,” says former diplomat and ambassador Tom Fletcher.

Mr Fletcher, now principal of Hertford College Oxford, says for such trips “the theatre matters as much as the substance”.

During the late Queen Elizabeth II’s long reign there were state visits that became historic in their own right, recognising a changed relationship – like the first visit to India after independence in 1961, the post-apartheid visit to South Africa in 1995 and the bridge-building visit to Ireland in 2011.

Queen and Mandela, 1995IMAGE SOURCE,GETTY IMAGES
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State visits can be historic landmarks, such as the late Queen’s trip to post-apartheid South Africa in 1995

Sir Vernon believes the UK has a diplomatic advantage in being able to deploy a monarch on such visits. King Charles is more famous than many heads of state, but he can also stay above the party politics that can embroil a president like Emmanuel Macron.

But there are some sceptical voices in the UK about the value of the King’s state visit.

Graham Smith, of the anti-monarchy group Republic, says sending a monarch gives a “misleading picture of the UK”, where “we promote the idea that we’re stuck in the past, always looking backwards and unable to fully embrace democratic values”.

Brandenburg GateIMAGE SOURCE,GETTY IMAGES
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In Berlin the King will be given a formal welcome at the Brandenburg Gate

At the centre of all this is the King himself, and he must have been disappointed at how the French section of the trip was called off.

Particularly when Prof Maclaran believes that this is the type of serious role that the King would enjoy: “There’s an obvious sense of purpose to it.”

Such visits, with their set-piece speeches, are a chance to put down a marker for his reign.

Also in the background this week is another headline-grabbing royal visit – the Duke of Sussex arriving in London for a court case against Associated Newspapers.

Prince Harry is a magnet for press attention – so the timing risks an awkward clash which could overshadow the King’s visit.

With the inaugural state visit already delayed, Buckingham Palace won’t want any more distractions or disruptions and will want the carefully choreographed events in Germany to get the trip back on track.

 

 

Source: By Sean Coughlan
Royal correspondent

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