THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — The Netherlands' Queen Beatrix announced Monday that she is ending her reign after 33 years and passing the crown to her eldest son, who has long been groomed to be king but who will have to work hard to match his mother's popularity.
The widely expected abdication comes at a time of debate over the future of the largely ceremonial Dutch monarchy, but also as calm has descended upon the Netherlands after a decade of turmoil that saw Beatrix act as the glue that held together an increasingly divided society.
"Responsibility for our country must now lie in the hands of a new generation," Beatrix, one of Europe's longest-serving monarchs, said in the simple, televised speech announcing her abdication.
The queen, who turns 75 in just a few days, said she will step down from the throne on April 30. That same day, her eldest son, Willem-Alexander, will be appointed king at an inauguration in Amsterdam. He will be the Netherlands' first king since Willem III died in 1890.
Willem-Alexander is a 45-year-old father of three young daughters, an International Olympic Committee member, a pilot and a water management expert.
Over the years, he has struggled to win the affection of this nation of 16 million, but his immensely popular wife, the Argentine-born Maxima, has helped him gain more acceptance ever since she brushed away a tear during their wedding in 2002.
They are a hard-working couple: Willem-Alexander regularly gives speeches at water conferences, sharing his low-lying nation's centuries of experience battling to stay dry, while soon-to-be Queen Maxima, a former investment banker, has carved out a career as a microfinance expert.
Together, the pair has often been seen cheering on Dutch sportsmen and women at Olympics from Beijing, to Vancouver and London.
"He's known as 'Mister Water,' isn't he? He seems like a reliable person, just like his mother," said Desiree Hoving, an Amsterdam resident. "I don't really have an emotional response to him, but I do think it's nice that Maxima is going to be queen."
Despite regular public appearances, Willem-Alexander is also fiercely private, giving reporters and photographers brief, choreographed glimpses of his family in return for being left in peace the rest of the time.
"He and Princess Maxima are fully prepared for their future roles," Beatrix said. "They will serve our nation with dedication, faithfully preserve the constitution and bring all their talents to the monarchy."
Despite her popularity, Maxima has always carried an air of controversy because her father was an agriculture minister in the military junta that ruled Argentina with an iron fist in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
In a move that may curtail possible protests, the Royal House said that Maxima told Prime Minister Mark Rutte that her parents will not attend the inauguration.
In her brief, prerecorded speech from her Huis ten Bosch Palace in The Hague, Beatrix said she was, "deeply grateful for the great faith you have shown in me in the many years that I could be your queen."
The queen's departure is sure to bring about 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."
Well-wishers immediately gathered outside the palace Monday.
One of them, Laura Dinkshof, took along a homemade orange banner. "We hope the queen will see it," she said. "It says we were very happy with our queen and we wish her a nice retirement and that we have trust in our new king."
Rutte, a staunch monarchist, said that ever since her coronation in 1980, Beatrix — the nation's oldest-ever monarch — "applied herself heart and soul for Dutch society."
Beatrix succeeded her mother, Juliana, as head of state, and her reign has been marked by tumultuous shifts in Dutch society and, more recently, by personal tragedy.
Observers believe Beatrix 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.
Beatrix was also thought to be giving time for her son to enjoy fatherhood before taking the throne.
The abdication also comes at a time of trial for Beatrix. 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 symbolic to begin with, the previous government stripped her of one of her few remaining powers: the ability to name a candidate to begin Cabinet formation after the election of the national parliament.
Beatrix's reign began in difficult economic times and there were riots in Amsterdam at her inauguration, 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 tenure 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.
In more recent years, personal tragedies exposed a softer side of the queen and brought her closer to her subjects.
The death of her German-born husband, Prince Claus, 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 her spouse's 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 2009. The driver killed seven people who had gathered to watch the royals, a brazen attack that shocked the nation.
Friso, who had been such a support after Claus' death, remains in a coma. Late last year, the Royal House said he showed "very minimal" signs of consciousness.
"I think it's a good time for her to leave, with all that happened in her life recently," said 44-year-old Bert Duesenberg of The Hague as he stood at her palace gates. "I also think that Alexander is ready to take over and he has to do that. It is good news and it's time for the change."
Associated Press writer Toby Sterling contributed from Amsterdam and Alex Furtula contributed from The Hague.