ROBERT HARDMAN: Banquet toasts made with German bubbles!

ROBERT HARDMAN: As if it couldn’t get worse for the French, the banquet toasts to Charles and Camilla in Berlin were made with German bubbles, not champagne!

On the cobbled square of Pariser Platz, the King and Queen Consort gladhanded their way past flag-waving crowds. Yet through tinted windows on the north side of the square could be seen several groups of glum-faced office workers in shirt sleeves – standing arms-crossed, and staring at what might have been.

These were the staff of the French Embassy, whose government was supposed to have enjoyed the distinction of hosting the first state visit of King Charles III this week.

As we have all seen, the hordes of violent, rubbish-burning extremists had spooked President Emmanuel Macron into cancelling the King’s visit. So the King’s overseas debut is now taking place, instead, in Germany, originally scheduled as only the second stop on this European tour.

And the Germans are thrilled.

The honour of that first handshake went to Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the football-loving 67-year-old ex-foreign minister who currently occupies the relatively obscure position of German president. As such, he enjoys comparable ceremonial powers to the King but without the history and diplomatic stardust of a thousand-year-old monarchy. It is one for which Germany has long held a deep – even faintly avuncular – affection, having given us George I three centuries back.

The King enjoys a toast after making a well-received speech celebrating Britain’s long links with Germany

The King’s overseas debut is now taking place, instead, in Germany, originally scheduled as only the second stop on this European tour. And the Germans are thrilled

As we have all seen, the hordes of violent, rubbish-burning extremists had spooked President Emmanuel Macron (pictured) into cancelling the King’s visit

In a unique gesture of honour, two German fighter jets accompanied the King and Queen Consort’s RAF Voyager plane when it entered German airspace

The fact that the late Queen’s very last full state visit had been to Germany, shortly before she gave up international travel in 2015, still resonates. So the symmetry of also being the first nation to welcome her successor has given considerable added satisfaction to the hosts of this diplomatic coup.

We had an early indication of that as the King’s RAF’s Voyager aircraft crossed the Channel and was soon intercepted by two Eurofighter Typhoons of the Luftwaffe which sat on either wing and escorted us all the way to Berlin.

There, the King was welcomed not at the presidential residence, the Bellevue Palace, where state visitors are traditionally greeted. Instead, the arrival ceremony had been relocated to perhaps the most famous public landmark in the city, the Brandenburg Gate, for the first time. Yet another small but significant gesture, as is the invitation to address the German parliament this morning.

Famously marooned in No Man’s Land during the Cold War, the Brandenburg Gate is now surrounded by embassies, shops and restaurants.

The King and Queen Consort have been welcomed at a glittering formal banquet in Berlin to mark their first state visit to Germany

Guests enjoyed a warm and ambient reception at Schloss Bellevue as the German President formally hosted the King and Queen Consort

The King delivered a warm and witty speech during tonight’s banquet as he praised the long-lasting relationship between Britain and Germany

Camilla, Queen Consort attends a State Banquet at Schloss Bellevue, hosted by the President Frank-Walter Steinmeier

State guards flank the royal couple and German President and his wife at the doors of Bellevue Palace

Usually state welcomes are rigidly formal affairs, governed by strict protocol. The meet-the-people stuff comes later. Yesterday, however, the King and Queen Consort were greeted by a full military parade beneath the statue of Winged Victory but also by crowds of tourists on either side.

It certainly lightened the mood, with much chuckling between the two heads of state as they posed for photos and walked to the presidential podium. Alongside their soberly suited husbands, the Queen Consort, in turquoise Bruce Oldfield, and president’s wife Elke Budenbender, in bright red, stood out amid the greyness.

The anthems and troop inspections over, there was then an extended walkabout, something Her Late Majesty would have saved for another day, one more indicator of the subtle shift in tone we are seeing during this reign.

Royalty does not do makeovers but, rather, incremental changes. There is no shortage of these to be seen in an itinerary peppered with environmental themes in between all the standard bilateral engagements – a visit to a market, a church, a school and so on.

So, yesterday’s visit began with a ‘sustainability reception’ attended by ministers from both governments. The King heard the president salute his dedication to environmental campaigning going back half a century. ‘We are all benefiting today from Your Majesty’s convictions,’ said Mr Steinmeier, ahead of – what else? – a tree-planting.

The underlying soft power of the royal brand continues to give Britain a unique advantage, one which the Government is keen to maximise in a post-Brexit landscape.

Among the guests was former Chancellor Angela Merkel (left) who stepped down in November 2021 after 16 years in office, and sat close to the King

The late Queen’s first state visit to Germany in 1965 was one of the most dramatic and significant signs of the country’s return to the international fold. Eminent German historians place it alongside the visit of John F Kennedy as a post-war landmark.

Millions turned out to watch her 11-day tour, almost all of it covered on live television. Indeed, the British ambassador reported back to London that Germans had bought more televisions ahead of her visit than in the whole of the previous year. Her arrival in Allied-controlled West Berlin, and her inspection of the communist-built Berlin Wall, reduced the crowds to tears.

Though the reaction would never be quite as hysterical thereafter, she always drew vast crowds on her subsequent four state visits. On that last one, in 2015, she was even informed that she had acquired her own entry in Duden, the official German dictionary.

The standard term for a queen had always been ‘die Königin’. The editors had now added a new word to the language: ‘die Queen’. The dictionary added: ‘There is no plural’.

Though there is no entry thus far for ‘der King’, it is interesting to note that several German news outlets are already referring to him as just that, if not simply as ‘Charles’. Few see any need for an ‘of’ to say which king they are actually referring to. The fact the King has made no less than 28 previous official visits to Germany and speaks the language well has certainly given him a head start.

During her last visit, we saw the obvious rapport between the Queen and the German chancellor of the day, Angela Merkel, then at the height of her powers.

The King shares a joke with former German premier Angela Merkel, who was among the guests of honour

The Chancellor, like the British prime minister, is not the host during state visits. Yet Mrs Merkel went out of her way to attend as many royal engagements as she could.

Despite the general rule that chancellors do not attend state banquets (hence the absence of Olaf Scholz last night), Mrs Merkel ignored it for the Queen, much to the delight of British diplomats.

Seldom seen in public since stepping down from office, Mrs Merkel resurfaced among the guests at the Bellevue Palace for last night’s white tie state banquet in honour of the King and the Queen Consort.

There, too, were many of the German cousins to whom the King remains very close. The Duke of Edinburgh used to take him on childhood visits to the families of his sisters, all of whom married German aristocrats. Every May, the duke would invite them all to Windsor for lively family reunions coinciding with the Royal Windsor Horse Show.

Among those at last night’s banquet was Prince Philipp of Hohenlohe-Langenburg and his sister, Princess Xenia (grandchildren of the duke’s elder sister) and Prince Bernhard, Hereditary Prince of Baden (another great-nephew).

The guests dined on pickled carp, free-range chicken with mushrooms and prunes with ‘black tea and sand biscuits’. And as if things could not get any worse for the French, the celebratory toasts were not even made with champagne. The hosts used German sparkling wine instead.

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