Decentralization of Governance Conducive to Stability: Habsburg

When a country’s local government on the lowest level is very strong, and each higher level of governance has less and less power, with the central government being very weak, the country is best suited to become stable and successful, said Eduard Habsburg.

Although monarchy and constitutional republic are diametrically different systems of governance, the United States and the former Austro-Hungarian Empire were both employing the same principle of subsidiarity, Habsburg, a member of the house of Habsburg-Lorraine, the former ruling family of Austria-Hungary, explained.

Habsburg told Epoch TV’s “American Thought Leaders” program in an interview on May 5 that, in his view, it was subsidiarity that played a key role in the success of both countries.

Eduard Habsburg is a Hungarian diplomat and Hungary’s ambassador to the Holy See. He wrote the book titled “The Habsburg Way: Seven Rules for Turbulent Times.”

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was established in the 19th century as an alliance of two sovereign states under the rule of the Habsburg dynasty and lasted until World War I.

“America is built on a great idea,” and its unique structure of how townships, homesteads, and counties are built is totally different from what is in Europe, Habsburg said. “America has the seed of really being the land of freedom, the land of the free.”

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(Sean Locke Photography/Shutterstock)

The United States is a federal constitutional republic, where the legal power of the government is derived from the Constitution itself. Under the Constitution, states retained a certain level of sovereignty. The same applies to smaller administrative units within states, such as counties, cities, and towns.

When working on his book, Habsburg found that subsidiarity was one of these principles that made the Habsburg empire great. It was, at least in theory, the opposite of an oppressive tyranny, he said.

Respect for Local Rights

“America is built from the bottom up,” Habsburg said. It has built homesteads first, then township, county, and state.

“The strongest power is on the basis,” Habsburg explained, meaning the lower the level of government, the stronger its power.

America has built its state-level government very soft with much-weakened power, and the federal-level government was made even weaker with very little power, Habsburg said.

This is something great because man is local, and democracy functions best on a local level, Habsburg asserted. “The higher up we go, the more abstract it becomes, the less people feel that they’re really involved in what’s going on in the country.”

“We’ve seen in the last two or three years that some states decided to go different ways than what the federal level wanted. This is still there in the United States. It’s a strong thing.”

Respect for local rights has been the Habsburg principle even from the 13th century, Habsburg said.

He cited advice given by Emperor Charles V to his son Philip II, the king of Spain: “If you rule over several nations and countries, you have to respect their languages, their rights, their political institutions, their habits, local habits, and their peculiarities or you will be in deep trouble.”

The moment one of the parts of this empire was not respected, they were trouble, revolts, and conflict, so the ruler had to respect everybody, Habsburg said.

Charles V from the house of Habsburg ruled in the 16th century a part of Europe extending from Germany to northern Italy, including Spain, the Netherlands, and Austria, and was elected Holy Roman Emperor.

The principle to respect the lower level of the country’s administrative structure can be illustrated by the relationship between the Habsburgs and Hungary, Habsburg said.

Hungary was always standing up for freedom, but it was seen as a rebel country and was subdued and suppressed by the Habsburgs, he said.

When the Habsburgs began to respect Hungarians and their local rights, gave them the right to call in their own diet, and let themselves be crowned the king of Hungary, the Austro-Hungarian Empire became great, Habsburg said.

These are the similarities between what the Habsburgs, in their best moments, tried to achieve and what the United States is and stands for, Habsburg said.

Monarchs vs. Elected Leaders

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Marionettes representing former Austrian imperial Habsburg family members Elisabeth (Sisi), Franz Stephan and Maria Theresa, are on display in Schoenbrunn Palace, on October 21, 2022, in Vienna, Austria. (Heinz-Peter Bader/Getty Images)

Although monarchy is considered a tyrannical system of governance by some intellectuals and portrayed as such in literature and movies, Habsburg believes that there are positive sides to royalty and focuses on those aspects in his book.

The great difference between political leaders of today and monarchs is that “a monarch is in it for life” while a political leader can hold an office in government only for a certain period of time and then moves to another job, Habsburg said. “That’s a temptation in today’s political world.”

“[A monarch’s] life is bound to their country and their responsibilities for the country,” Habsburg said. Moreover, when making decisions, monarchs have to consider that their children will take over in the future, and they will have to bear the consequences of the monarch’s decisions, he pointed out.

Another big difference between elected political leaders and monarchs manifests in their approach to crisis, Habsburg said.

Elected officials are always tempted to pay attention to headlines in the news, worrying which headline will help them get reelected and which headline will pose a risk to their political career, but monarch does not need to be concerned with media coverage, Habsburg said.

Not being mindful of media coverage may pose a danger in some way, but it is also an advantage, Habsburg said. “You can really think what is good for my country and not what is good for my career.”

“Not all rulers were always like this, but I can really and confidently assess that all current rulers in European monarchies that I have met are exactly like that.”

Habsburg said that he had been able to meet the current kings and grand dukes of Europe when they were rulers in training, except the English ones. “These experiences led me to understand that … the people I’ve met were deeply humbled servants.”

From the earliest childhood through their youth, they learned all important issues and all the fault lines of their countries, and they were raised to serve their countries, Habsburg explained.

“For instance, if your country has two languages, you try not to prefer one of those two. If your country has Protestants and Catholics, and you’re a Christian ruler, you try not to show your preference too strongly; you try to be balanced. You are acutely aware of which topics threaten the unity in your country.”

Habsburg emphasized that monarchy provides stability to the country.

Monarchy Today

However, “the current royal families, and the current kingdoms and dukedoms, are probably only a shadow of what monarchy once was,” Habsburg lamented.

“The king of Belgium, for instance, who is a devout Catholic, signed one of the worst euthanasia laws in Europe because, in his position, he has to sign every law presented to him by the parliament, “ Habsburg said. “That is not what the monarchy is about.”

In Belgium, the king is obligated to sign all laws but has no veto power.

People who live in a monarchy, like, e.g., people living in England, have a very different outlook on monarchy than people who do not have this experience, Habsburg said.

They watch how the future king of England grows up and how his parents serve, and that provides stability and gives a country hope, he added.

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The coffin of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, draped with the Royal Standard, placed on top of a catafalque at the lying-in-state in Westminster Hall in London, on September 18, 2022. (Courtesy of Howard Cheng)

For example, when Queen Elizabeth II passed away, people in England queued up for hours to be able to pay respect to their queen for seconds, Habsburg said. He estimated that 60 percent of those people perhaps were there out of respect for this woman, but at least 40 percent of them were simply “a sign of respect for the institution of monarchy.”

Naomi Brown, a 29-year-old woman from London, joined the queue in the evening after work and waited nearly 11 hours to pay respect to the queen, Reuters reported. Brown told Reuters when nearing the front of the line: “She has been such a good symbol for our country… It feels like we have lost a family member.”

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