EDITORIALEditorials
i

Juan Carlos I: a necessary distance

Spain’s former king is leaving the country to prevent his personal problems from affecting the monarchy

Former King Juan Carlos I on December 6, 2018.
Former King Juan Carlos I on December 6, 2018.CURTO DE LA TORRE / AFP

Spain’s former king Juan Carlos I has informed his son King Felipe VI about his decision to distance himself from La Zarzuela, the royal residence, and to leave the country. This decision has been accepted by the reigning monarch with respect and gratitude, and it represents the most earnest attempt to date at putting some distance between the institution that Felipe VI heads and the investigation into opaque accounts that Juan Carlos allegedly held abroad.

The latter is arguing that his decision was based on the need to bring “peace and tranquility” to the Crown, an institution that is above the individuals who embody it at any given time. At the same time, Juan Carlos has underscored that he will remain “entirely at the disposal” of public prosecutors for any relevant procedure or action that may be required. This puts to rest any theories that Juan Carlos’ departure could hinder his accountability before the justice system.

Juan Carlos’s departure separates his personal life from the official residence where he lived for decades in his role as head of state

Regardless of any possible ramifications of the matters currently under scrutiny by a Swiss court and Spain’s Supreme Court – and which so far have not led to any charges against the former head of state, either in Switzerland or in Spain – the decision announced on Monday, and which appears to have been made in agreement with Felipe VI, is appropriate, pertinent, and responsible.

It is appropriate in terms of the timing, since prolonging the existing controversy without offering the required response would do nothing for the head of state’s prestige, for institutional stability, or for the historical vision of the reign that brought about Spain’s democratic transition [following the death of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1975].

The decision is pertinent in scope, as it clearly creates a firewall between the institution itself and the vicissitudes of the individuals who have embodied it: Juan Carlos’s departure separates his personal life from the official residence where he lived for decades in his role as head of state.

The decision is also responsible because it implies an attitude of continued support for the architecture underlying Spanish democracy, above and beyond any mistakes or instances of unacceptable personal behavior.

As early as March 15, Felipe VI moved to protect the institution by stripping his father of his annual stipend of nearly €200,000 allocated by the royal household’s budget; the reigning monarch also decided to forego any hypothetical inheritance he might receive in future from any funds held abroad by his father.

As was explained in an extensive release, the royal household first heard about these funds through the lawyers representing Corinna Larsen, Juan Carlos I’s former friend, who tried to force a direct negotiation with La Zarzuela by threatening to go public with the scandal, but whose overtures were firmly rejected by Felipe VI.

Yet even that step was not enough to prevent the trickle of information about the Swiss investigation from damaging the institution’s image. Just as Juan Carlos I’s behavior during the most critical moments of the Transition period brought prestige to the monarchy, it was inevitable that his financial irregularities would tarnish its image.

This new decision to separate the person from the institution by taking Juan Carlos far away from La Zarzuela has not been an easy one, regardless of the apparent agreement between father and son and their common goal of safeguarding the Crown. At age 82, Juan Carlos is leaving his home of 58 years out the back door. On the other hand, Felipe VI has not tried to strip his father of his honorary title of king emeritus, and Juan Carlos I has made no move to voluntarily give it up.

Just as Juan Carlos I’s behavior during the most critical moments of the Transition period brought prestige to the monarchy, it was inevitable that his financial irregularities would tarnish its image

In any case, Juan Carlos enjoys the same legal right to presumption of innocence as any other citizen, and this presumption remains intact. Neither the Swiss nor the Spanish prosecutors investigating Corinna Larsen’s financial activities have brought any accusation against him. If they do, Juan Carlos I will have to defend himself and could face trial, at least for events following his abdication in June 2014.

The former king’s disappointing and less than exemplary behavior during the last years of his reign must not make anybody forget his irreplaceable contribution to the progress and freedom of all Spaniards during nearly half a century. Without his personal commitment and resolve, it is possible that Spain would have become a democracy anyway, but the cost would have been much higher. That is why those who are now taking advantage of Juan Carlos I’s fall from grace to reopen the debate about the monarchy should consider whether, regardless of the legitimacy of their republican aspirations, there is enough social and parliamentary consensus in Spain right now to drive constitutional change. Figures indicate the opposite. It is thus irresponsible to fan the flames of this institutional crisis at a time when the country needs stability and when everyone should join forces to deal with a devastating economic crisis that’s already here, as well as with a health crisis that refuses to go away.

English version by Susana Urra.