In this lesson, we explore two governmental systems prevalent in Europe: constitutional monarchies and republics. We will discuss the differences between the two and examine an example of each type.
Constitutional Monarchies and Republics
When you're in the checkout line in the supermarket, there are always several magazines to peruse while you wait. Their covers are usually populated with all sorts of celebrities, from movie stars to sports figures, though occasionally, the cover shot is of an altogether different type of celebrity: the British royal family.
Though they may still hold titles like king or queen, duke or duchess, the British royals do very little actual ruling. This is because Great Britain is a constitutional monarchy. The rest of this lesson will detail exactly what a constitutional monarchy is and its evolution in Europe, along with its monarch-less counterpart, the republic.
A constitutional monarchy is a form of government which has a head of state which has little or no role in actual governing. In a constitutional monarchy, all decisions of governance are managed by a legislative body. These legislative bodies can take various forms: some are two-chambered legislatures or parliaments, while others are single-chambered. These legislative bodies are also usually elected by the people, with a roughly equal number of citizens electing their own representative to represent their opinions and interests in the legislature.
In this system, the monarch often has no actual power to govern the state. Often they still exist as the official head of state, though the office is merely symbolic. The king or queen will often greet other heads of state and important figures visiting the country and initiate important ceremonies throughout the country. As a result of this reduced status, the de facto head of state in a constitutional monarchy is often the leader of the legislative body, in many cases, a prime minister.
The evolution of constitutional monarchies varied across Europe. Many states began as absolute monarchies, where the king not only had a say in the country's governance, he very often had the only say. All power emanated from the king. Over the past few centuries, especially after the 18th-century period of Enlightenment, representative institutions in these monarchies in Europe slowly gained power at the expense of the power of the monarchy.
The circumstances by which the powers were taken away from the monarchs has varied considerably - some measures were achieved simply by passing measures in the legislative body, while others faced opposition from the monarchs and required drawn out negotiations or, worse, civil unrest and war.
Whereas constitutional monarchies often took centuries to slowly wrest control of the government from the monarchy, its more radical counterpart, the republic, denies the very existence of any monarchy and places all of the power to govern in the hands of the people. Republics also often possess the directly elected, representative assemblies that constitutional monarchies also have; however, instead of a figurehead monarch, most republics exhibit an executive branch with real power.
The executive branch, like the monarchy, is a separate institution from the legislative body. The head executive (for example, the president in the United States) is often the most powerful person in the government, though there are checks and balances on the executive's power exercised by the legislative body and, often, a separate judiciary as well.
The existence of this separate executive branch is perhaps the biggest difference between a republic and a constitutional monarchy. The prime minister of a constitutional monarchy is the effective head of state, although they are still technically part of the legislative body. They often create a cabinet of ministers from other legislators who are in charge of various governmental departments, though these too are still part of the legislative body. Therefore, the de facto executive body in a constitutional monarchy often does not have the same checks on its power as do the executive branches of republics because the same people control both legislative and executive decision making.
Western Europe exhibits both constitutional monarchies and republics. The United Kingdom (UK) is perhaps the best known constitutional monarchy in Europe, as of summer 2014 still technically ruled by Queen Elizabeth II though, its prime minister is David Cameron. The UK's Parliament is two-chambered, but all effective governing power rests in the House of Commons, made up of 650 members. The House of Lords, which is populated with men and women that possess hereditary titles, is largely symbolic and possesses no powers of governance. Other constitutional monarchies of the same or similar structure in Western Europe include Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Norway, and Luxembourg.
There are also several republics in Western Europe. France, for example, is a republic. The French executive is headed by the president, who as of summer 2014 is Francois Hollande. The French legislative body is made up of two chambers: the National Assembly and the Senate. The National Assembly is headed by Prime Minister Manuel Valls. The French president, as per the French Constitution of 1958, possesses significantly more power than what we are used to in the United States, though the legislative body, in particular the National Assembly, still has the ability to check the president's power. Other republics in Europe include Germany, Italy, Ireland, Portugal, Poland, and many others.
Both constitutional monarchies and republics exist in today's Europe. Subtle differences in the allocation of power exist between the two. While constitutional monarchies still have a king or queen, all of the actual governing power rests in the legislature. The most powerful statesmen in the legislative body is referred to as the prime minister.
The executive body in a republic is usually popularly elected and possesses real power to govern. The legislature and the head executive govern together. Though the head executive is often the most powerful person in the nation, the legislative body still holds important checks and balances on the executive's power. As the prime minister is often the de facto head of state in a constitutional monarchy, these same checks on power are not always present.
Once you've finished with this lesson, you should have the ability to:
- Describe the differences in a constitutional monarchy and a republic
- Explain how each is structured
- Identify examples of republics and constitutional monarchies in Europe