Spanish royal family

How the fate of Spain’s Juan Carlos I was decided

The top-secret decision for the former monarch to leave the country came after all possible options had been reviewed – including regulating the emeritus king's tax affairs

Juan Carlos I, outside the Zarzuela Palace, in 2014.
Juan Carlos I, outside the Zarzuela Palace, in 2014.Andres Kudacki / AP

It’s Friday, July 31 and Spain’s regional leaders are gathering in San Millán de la Cogolla in La Rioja for the first face-to-face meeting with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in 14 weeks – during the coronavirus lockdown, the weekly discussions had been held via video link.

Sánchez wants to put forward an image of cohesion and unity in the face of an economic crisis of historic proportions, and a growing number Covid-19 outbreaks that are threatening to unleash a second wave of the pandemic. Even Basque leader Iñigo Urkullu – originally reticent to attend – is at the event, making Catalan premier Quim Torra the only absentee.

King Felipe VI, having just finished his tour of Spain’s 17 regions with a visit to Asturias the day before, is on hand to inaugurate the conference. The program has been worked out in meticulous detail, but at the last minute everything changes to accommodate a private meeting between the king and Sánchez. No one knows what it is about.

Less than 48 hours later, Spain’s emeritus king Juan Carlos I leaves the Zarzuela Palace, the seat of the royal household, which he has called home for the past 58 years. The following Monday, Juan Carlos leaves Spain altogether for an unknown destination and an unknown length of time. The decision had been taken toward the end of July, in the midst of a torrent of revelations regarding bank accounts the former monarch allegedly held in tax havens. A couple of loose ends remained and it was these that Felipe VI and the Socialist Party (PSOE) leader discussed together in La Rioja.

One of the details that still had to be decided upon was the exact wording that would be used in the statement to announce Juan Carlos I’s exit from the palace on the afternoon of August 3. Every word was carefully measured, especially in the phrase: “At this time, I am moving away from Spain.”

“Moving” was the term used; not going into exile, not escaping, nor traveling, leaving or abandoning. To move is to change from one place to another. But for civil servants and those in the armed forces, which is the official profession of the former king, to move is to change one’s purpose, often involving a change of location – and it can be voluntary or enforced.

As EL PAÍS was first to report, the decision was finalized in a meeting between father and son, which took place in Felipe’s offices. The head of the royal household, Jaime Alfonsín, was also present, as reported by COPE journalist, Carlos Herrera. In the three-way conversations that took place during the month of July, the king mediated between his father and Sánchez, while Alfonsín kept deputy prime minister, Carmen Calvo, and Sánchez’s chief of staff, Iván Redondo, informed.

Sánchez’s statements, describing Juan Carlos I’s undeclared funds as “worrying and disturbing,” as well as the insistence of several government ministers that Felipe VI should distance himself from his father, put the Zarzuela Palace under the spotlight. But it wasn’t alleged government pressure that pushed King Felipe to take action. Rather it was surveys, strictly for use by the royal household, that showed that respect for the monarchy was in freefall, particularly among Spaniards under the age of 45.

In his meetings with King Felipe, Sánchez expressed his alarm at the direction events were taking and stated the need to safeguard the monarchy at all costs by throwing up a firewall to protect it from scandal, though he did not indicate in detail how this should be done. According to government sources, Sánchez articulated the problem, but left the decision up to the king. In other words, Felipe VI would have the prime minister’s full support whatever he decided, but the responsibility would lie with king; it was the Crown’s credibility that was at stake.

It is one thing for Juan Carlos to agree to leave Spain, because he has been told to do so, and another to limit his freedom of movement
Source close to the former king

During those weeks in July, a flurry of reports and legal advice went back and forth between La Moncloa, the seat of government, and the royal household in the Zarzuela Palace. All possible options were analyzed: from the waiving of Juan Carlos I’s immunity while he was head of state, which was not legally feasible, to regulating the former king’s tax affairs, which would be financially impossible if he wanted to pay back everything he owed to the Tax Agency – and not just the amount since 2014, when he abdicated the throne and lost his immunity.

The matter was handled with complete confidentiality. Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo was the only member of the government kept abreast of developments aside from Sánchez himself. It wasn’t only ministers from Unidas Podemos, the junior partner in Spain’s coalition government, who complained of being kept in the dark; most Socialist ministers did not know about the decision either.

Juan Carlos I’s refusal to voluntarily renounce the honorary title of king emeritus, which was granted to him in June 2014 just days before his abdication, ruled out the simplest option, which would have entailed the straightforward modification of a royal decree. Felipe VI did not want to strip his father of the title against his will, as he did when he stripped his sister Cristina of her title as duchess of Palma – a decision which created a rift between them. Neither did he want to pare down the royal family, a step he had already taken after his coronation when he excluded his sisters and brothers-in-law from the royal household, confining it to his parents and children; to pare it down any further would have meant unjustly punishing his mother, Queen Sofía.

The remaining option was to put physical distance between the Crown and its previous custodian; in other words, the departure of Juan Carlos I from the Zarzuela Palace. At first, the former monarch wasn’t keen on the idea. Not unlike the Botswana scandal in 2012, when he was found to be big game hunting with his former lover, Corinna Larsen, and subsequently refused to make a public apology, or in the months leading up to his abdication, the former monarch was plagued by doubts. Confined to the Zarzuela Palace from the beginning of the lockdown, his only contact with the outside world were chats with friends, some of whom encouraged him to resist any pressure on the grounds that he was being treated unfairly.

But, eventually, Juan Carlos gave in – a difficult step for him; in his official statement, Felipe VI indicated just how difficult, by expressing his “sincere respect and gratitude for his decision,” aware of the personal sacrifice involved.

The final decision, however, involves a substantial change. Not only would Juan Carlos I leave the Zarzuela Palace, as the government advised, he would also the country. Sánchez saw downsides in this: he wanted the former king to stay in Spain. But the prime minister ended up giving his full support to the move, respecting the agreement between father and son.

The departure of Juan Carlos I has naturally led to further questions, such as where he will settle and the source of his income. Some have advised against London since it is the home of Larsen. And the Persian Gulf was also ruled out, as it would mean “returning to the scene of the crime” – an allusion to the $100 million donation (€65 million at the exchange rate of the time) from the Saudi Royal House, currently being investigated by the Swiss prosecutors. But ultimately, no one has much say in the matter. “It is one thing for him to agree to leave Spain, because he has been told to do so, and another to limit his freedom of movement,” says a source close to him.

While his permanent place of residence is being decided, Juan Carlos has been visiting friends, first in Sanxenxo in Galicia, and then, according to various sources, in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

Fear of Covid-19

At 82, with 17 operations under his belt, including open-heart surgery last year, Juan Carlos I’s biggest concern is the risk posed by Covid-19.

Meanwhile, the government has refrained from commenting on his whereabouts, leaving that task to the royal household, which has stated that the former monarch is making a private trip and is not duty-bound to reveal the destination. But the former head of state is no ordinary citizen; he holds the title of king emeritus, continues to be part of the royal family, enjoys a police escort, is aforado, meaning he has immunity from Spain’s lower courts, and has not renounced his dynastic rights over the Crown.

One of the outcomes of his departure has been to establish what has been an open secret for years – namely the former king’s separation from Queen Sofía. The infanta traveled to Mallorca recently where she allowed herself to be photographed out shopping just as her husband was making a clandestine exit from Spain and hiding from photographers. The word that best defines his move, according to one of his friends, is estrangement – a mixture of voluntary exile, disbelief and longing.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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