Brussels — The royal families of Western Europe command huge fortunes, and in many cases , their populations' love and respect. Above all, they are masters of survival. To any American, royalty is what his ancestors fled once all men were found to be created equal. But to many West Europeans, it is what must be preserved in this changing world - no matter what common sense or the tax man would dictate.
For better or worse, public opinion in Western Europe today remains strongly in favor of royalty. Pomp and circumstance - and the fairy-tale lives that go with it - seem to most citizens a fair trade for the enormous financial burden it places on the shrinking public purse.
According to the London newspaper The Times, for example, the British taxpayer has to cough up an estimated (STR)15 million (about $24 million) a year to run Western Europe's most visible monarchy, including ''family allowances'' of nearly $500,000 for the Queen Mother and more than $250,000 for Prince Philip - tax-free.
Others of royal blood in Britain also receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax-free allowances drawn from the public till. (Prince Charles, however, receives no government funding, living instead off other revenues, including about $650,000 a year in income from the Duchy of Cornwall.)
Nor do the British seem bothered by the royal yacht, the royal train, free postage for the royal family, or Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, which cost about $8 million ($3.36 million for Buckingham and $4.64 million for Windsor) a year to maintain.
Similarly unmoved are taxpayers in nine other W. European countries where royalty reigns and heirs-apparent wait in the wings to inherit the crowns and vast (often tax-free) fortunes now held by their relatives.
Next in line - besides Britain's Prince Charles - include Monaco's Prince Albert, (the son of the late Princess Grace), Belgium's Prince Philippe, Luxembourg's Prince Henri, Spain's Prince Felipe Juan Pablo Alfonso de Todos los Santos Borbon Schleswig-Holstein Bourbon Sonderburg-Glucksburg (known by his classmates as Felipe), the Netherlands's Prince Willem-Alexander, Denmark's Prince Frederik, Sweden's Princess Victoria, Norway's Prince Harald, and Liechtenstein's Prince Hans Adam.
Among the wealthiest will be Prince Willem-Alexander who, like his mother, Queen Beatrix, belongs to the House of Orange-Nassau - reportedly richer than Britain's royal family. Neither will Prince Hans Adam go begging. His family continues to hold one of the finest art collections in the world, despite the sale 15 years ago to Washington's National Gallery of the last privately held painting by Leonardo da Vinci, said to be worth $6 million.
Some royal families in Western Europe have survived not only war and revolution but links - at least in the public mind - with fascism.
Belgium's King Baudouin, for example, is the son of King Leopold III, whose too-quick-to-be-believed surrender to the Nazis in World War II forced his abdication in 1951. And King Juan Carlos I of Spain is none other than the hand-picked choice of former dictator Francisco Franco. Today, both kings (and their queens - Dona Fabiola de Mora y Aragon and Sofia) remain extremely popular.
Not so, however, for one-time monarchs in West Germany, France, Italy, Greece , and several other smaller West European countries, where all remnants of royalty have been scrapped. These ex-monarchs have either been banished (King Constantine of Greece) or allowed to live in the country but stripped of their former privileges (the grandson of the last German Kaiser, Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, who lives in West Berlin, and the Count of Paris, a descendant of the Bourbons, who occupied the throne in France until 1848).
On the other hand, nothing short of a war or revolution is likely to prevent Britain's Prince Charles, his son, and their fellow royal successors in other West European countries from attaining their respective thrones.
''I can't imagine it, even in my wildest dreams,'' said a less-than-royal textile worker in Belgium. ''Belgium without a king? Not on your life.''
Nor is it likely West Europe's royalty could ever suffer the same fate as royalty in what is now communist Eastern Europe.
Bulgaria's exiled King Simeon, for example, exiled by the Communists in 1946, holds down a 9-to-5 job as a property dealer in Spain. As for Romania's Michael, who was king twice (1927 to 1930 and 1940 to 1947), he spends his days trading foreign currencies in Switzerland - by all accounts, quite royally, thank you.