THE HAGUE, Netherlands >> Dutch Queen Beatrix announced today that she will abdicate on April 30 after 33 years as head of state, clearing the way for her eldest son, Crown Prince Willem-Alexander, to become the nation’s first king in more than a century.
The announcement, in a nationally televised speech, signaled an end to the reign of one of Europe’s longest-serving monarchs, whose time on the throne was marked by tumultuous shifts in Dutch society and, more recently, by personal tragedy.
The queen’s abdication from the largely ceremonial role had been widely expected, but it is sure to bring an outpouring of sentimental and patriotic feelings among the Dutch, most of whom adore Beatrix. In everyday conversation, many of her subjects refer to her simply by the nickname “Bea.”
“Responsibility for our country must now lie in the hands of a new generation,” Beatrix said in the speech delivered from her Huis ten Bosch palace just days before she was to turn 75.
“I am deeply grateful for the great faith you have shown in me in the many years that I could be your Queen,” she added.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte, a staunch monarchist, paid his respects in a speech that immediately followed Beatrix on all Dutch television channels.
“Since her coronation in 1980s she’s applied herself heart and soul for Dutch society,” Rutte said.
The timing of the announcement makes sense at multiple levels. It comes just days before Beatrix’s birthday, and she is already the oldest ever Dutch monarch: the pragmatic Dutch do not see being king or queen as a job for life. The nation also celebrates the 200th anniversary of its monarchy, the House of Orange, at the end of this year, Beatrix said.
Observers believe she remained on the throne for so long in part because of unrest in Dutch society as the country struggled to assimilate more and more immigrants, mainly Muslims from North Africa, and shifted away from its traditional reputation as one of the world’s most tolerant nations.
In her Christmas Day speech in 2010, Beatrix made a heartfelt plea for unity, saying, “with each other we all make up one society.”
Beatrix was also thought to be giving time for her son to enjoy fatherhood before becoming King Willem-Alexander: he has three young daughters with Argentine investment banker Maxima Zorreguieta.
Beatrix has frequently said that the best years of her life were her time as a young mother, before her coronation in 1980.
The abdication also comes at a time of trial for Beatrix. This time a year ago she was struck by personal tragedy when the second of her three sons, Prince Friso, was left in a coma after being engulfed by an avalanche while skiing in Austria.
And even in a job that is mostly ceremonial to begin with, the previous government stripped her of one of her few remaining powers: the ability to name a candidate to begin Cabinet formations after elections of the national parliament.
Meanwhile Willem-Alexander, 45, is prepared to assume the job.
He is a trained pilot and expert in the quintessentially Dutch field of water management who has long been groomed for the throne, often joining Beatrix on state visits and sometimes even flying her home.
Willem-Alexander, a member of the International Olympic Committee, courted controversy with his choice to marry Maxima, whose father was an agriculture minister in the military junta that ruled Argentina with an iron fist in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
Beatrix’s choice of husband, Claus, who died in 2002, was met with resistance in 1966 because he was a German national and the Nazis’ World War II occupation of the Netherlands was still an open wound for many who lived through it. But, like Maxima, he won the hearts of his adopted nation and there was a huge outpouring of grief at his death.
Beatrix’s reign began in difficult economic times and there were riots in Amsterdam at her coronation, as thousands of demonstrators protesting the city’s housing shortages fought pitched battles with police just a few hundred meters (yards) from the downtown palace where she was crowned.
But throughout her reign she was a calming influence on society, particularly in the aftermath of the 2002 assassination of populist politician Pim Fortuyn and the murder two years later of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim extremist.
Although she was widely respected for her unpretentious style, it took Beatrix much of her reign to attain the admiration and popularity of her late mother, former Queen Juliana, who was more openly loving toward her people.
But in recent years, personal tragedies exposed a softer side to the queen and brought her closer to her subjects.
Claus’s death took a toll on her, and it was apparent how deep her reliance on the quiet man had been: she was filmed leaning heavily, almost hanging on Prince Friso’s arm as they entered the church for his funeral.
In another blow, a deranged loner tried to slam a car into an open-topped bus carrying members of the royal family as they celebrated the Queens Day national holiday in 2010. The driver killed seven people gathered to watch the royals and the brazen attack shocked the nation.
Then, in 2012, Prince Friso — who had been such a support after Klaus’s death — was engulfed by an avalanche as he skied, plunging him into a coma from which he has yet to wake.
Beatrix went back to her busy official schedule soon after the accident, but it again spurred speculation that her reign could be nearing its end.
Associated Press writer Toby Sterling contributed from Amsterdam.