BERLIN — Britain’s King Charles III addressed Germany’s parliament on Thursday and lauded the two countries’ cooperation in helping Ukraine confront Russia’s invasion.
“My parents’ 11-day tour proved to be a pivotal moment in reconciliation between our nations. My mother knew what a huge reconciliation this meant,” he said, referring to how the two countries became close allies in the wake of World War II.
“The scourge of war is once again back in Europe. The war of aggression against Ukraine has unleashed unimaginable suffering on so many people. The security of Europe is just as much at threat as our democratic values,” he said.
“Germany and the United Kingdom play an important leading role as the largest European donors for Ukraine,” he said. “Let us take courage from our unity in defending Ukraine, defending liberty and defending democracy.”
Royal watchers are closely following the trip to see how Charles performs on his first outing as king on the world stage, attempting to step into his mother’s shoes as the representative of brand Britain. British monarchs are apolitical, but foreign tours take into account the advice of the government and are a key aspect of the country’s “soft power” — important for a country that’s still finding its footing in the world post-Brexit.
“Listening to him speak German in the Bundestag was a bit like listening to the queen, speaking Irish to the Irish president in 2011. It’s the sign of a proper historical restart,” said Roderick Parkes, research director at the German Council on Foreign Relations. He called the speech a positive step in the two countries’ relations.
“I thought it was rather charming in the way he did it, in terms of finding subtle ways to kind of say: The British have misbehaved over the last three or four years, but for trade, energy, Ukraine, global affairs, we need to work together,” Parkes added.
The backdrop of Charles’s first overseas visit as monarch is not only the war in Ukraine but signs of a shift in the debate over the country’s exit from the European Union two years earlier. According to a recent poll, as of March 23, 53 percent of people in Britain think it was wrong to leave the European Union.
In emphasizing the close ties between the two countries, including in cultural and scientific fields such as environmental energy research, Charles appeared to try to assuage feelings after years of bruising negotiations over Brexit.
The fact that Charles visited ahead of his coronation on May 6 was a “great personal” and a “strong European gesture,” German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said at Wednesday’s banquet ahead of the king’s speech. “It means a lot to me. It means a lot to us Germans.”
Many of those who turned out to welcome Charles and Camilla, Queen Consort, on Wednesday also thought the visit would help heal the wounds.
“I think it’s a good sign for German-British ties that Charles has come to Germany on his first trip as king,” said Petra Kohlberger, 66, part of a crowd of 1,500 people waving German and British flags at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.
“I hope Charles can also help modernize the royals and focus on important topics like climate change,” she added.
Berlin student Alexander Forkert, 27, still finds it a shame that the majority of British voters chose to leave the E.U. “We have to try and keep relations as close as possible. I don’t think it’s easy. And so now there’s the charm offensive from the British king.”
The king’s visit to Germany was also a chance for Charles to put his own mark on the monarchy, which he has signaled he wants to modernize and scale back. In keeping with his interests in social and environmental projects, meetings with Ukrainian refugees, a trip to an organic farmers market and a presentation of sustainable technology in Hamburg were also on the agenda.
Compared with his previous public appearances as the Prince of Wales, protocol now demands that Charles’s opinions are kept more discreet.
Despite strong anti-immigration rhetoric from the British government and moves to tighten an asylum law that have evoked concern from the United Nations, Charles took time to praise Germany’s acceptance of more than a million refugees from Ukraine.
This is “convincing proof, it seems to me, of the generosity of the people in Germany,” Charles told some 130 guests at Schloss Bellevue on Wednesday evening.
Charles will visit on Friday a monument to the Kindertransport, commemorating an operation in which 10,000 Jewish children from Hamburg were spirited out of the country between 1938 and 1939 to save them from the Nazis — another reference to migration and asylum.
With his speech Thursday, Charles became the first monarch to address Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag — something that didn’t sit well with every party.
“It is not appropriate for the highest democratic body to bow to a monarch,” Left party leader Martin Schirdewan told the Deutsche Presse-Agentur news agency. “I also find it strange that, in times of inflation and skyrocketing poverty, the Bundestag should allow someone who was literally born with a golden spoon in their mouth to be written into their friendship book.”
For Parkes at the German Council on Foreign Relations, though, the visit and the speech showed that Britain wants to be more closely aligned with Germany, if not Europe as a whole.
“I thought we heard all the right messages on the British side. I’m not sure that the Germans quite know what to do with it. So we’ll have to wait and see,” he said.