Felipe to take Spanish throne in midst of crisis

On his accession the new king must make himself useful to the country

Stamps depicting Spain’s Prince Felipe as future king are covered with gum for keychains at a factory in Colmenar Viejo. Photograph: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Stamps depicting Spain’s Prince Felipe as future king are covered with gum for keychains at a factory in Colmenar Viejo. Photograph: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images


Fidel Castro reportedly once said to Spain’s King Juan Carlos: “That son of yours, who’s so tall and fair, what is he – some kind of viceroy?”

This anecdote is recounted by author José García Abad in his book La Soledad del Rey (The King’s Solitude). Published just over 10 years ago, it reflects some of the doubts that hung over the heir to the throne at the time.

Crown Prince Felipe was still single then, having had a string of relationships with women from aristocratic and jet-setting backgrounds. More importantly, his suitability as Spain’s future monarch was questioned even by many pro-royal Spaniards, who wondered if he could be as effective a king as his widely admired father.

A decade on, things are very different. Prince Felipe is married with two daughters and has successfully built a reputation for seriousness and discretion. This contrasts with the sliding popularity of his father, who has spent 39 years on the throne. Following Juan Carlos’s sudden abdication announcement on June 2nd, the feeling is that the crown prince is well prepared for his proclamation as King Felipe VI, on June 19th.

“He’s a very well-rounded, mature and sophisticated 46-year-old,” says Charles Powell, a historian who has spent many hours in the future king’s company. “Prince Felipe has had a very well-rounded education, both civilian and military, which has prepared him for the challenges ahead.”

That education included spells in a Madrid primary school, a Canadian boarding school and three military academies. But perhaps a bigger mark was made on the young prince on the night of February 23rd, 1981, when a group of civil guard officers, nostalgic for the right-wing authoritarianism of the dictator Francisco Franco, attempted a coup d’état. King Juan Carlos, who had taken the throne in 1975, just after Franco’s death, was instrumental in thwarting the putsch, ensuring the military stayed loyal to the crown and that the fledgling democracy was not derailed.

The 13-year-old Felipe was by the king’s side in the royal palace throughout that dramatic night, watching as his father came through the biggest test of his reign and one of the main reasons for his enormous popularity in the following years.

Cosseted aristocrat

The royal family sought to ensure Felipe’s higher education was relatively normal and he attended Madrid’s public Autónoma University before taking a master’s degree at Washington DC’s Georgetown University.

However, the attempt to shake off the image of a cosseted aristocrat was not a total success. The writer Manuel Vicent has in the past praised the prince, but lamented that he was “raised in the company of a group of in-bred posh friends who were capable of wearing ironed jeans and tasselled shoes of Moroccan leather.”

The prince’s marriage to Letizia Ortiz, a divorced, middle-class television news anchor, did plenty to persuade Spaniards their future king had his feet on the ground, even if in some deeply old-fashioned circles his choice of wife is still frowned upon.

While Juan Carlos is known for his spontaneous charisma, the prince is more analytically minded, which explains his genuine interest in technology and education. His Prince of Asturias awards for science, culture and sport have added to his credibility, as have dozens of trips abroad, often to Latin America, representing the Spanish crown.

All of this would have ensured a clear horizon for Spain’s new monarch just a few years ago, but today Prince Felipe faces daunting challenges.

“Right now the prince is facing a crisis every bit as big as the one his father faced [in 1981],” says Vicente Palacio, deputy director of the Fundación Alternativas think-tank.

“This isn’t a coup d’état . . . but there is an equally big crisis – a crisis regarding the legitimacy of institutions, of the political parties, the economy and Spain’s role in Europe.”

The monarchy is among those beleaguered institutions. King Juan Carlos’s popularity has plummeted in recent years, especially after an ill-judged elephant hunting holiday in Botswana in 2012 when the economy was hitting rock bottom.

Alleged fraud Meanwhile, his son-in-law, Iñaki

Urdangarin, is being investigated for allegedly stealing money from a charity. Many left-leaning politicians and ordinary Spaniards have seen the abdication as an opportunity to question the monarchy’s future and call for a referendum on the issue, although the government has ruled this out.

A Metroscopia poll showed that, while 83 per cent of Spaniards approved of the abdication, 36 per cent would rather have a republic than a new king.

Restoring the monarchy’s severely dented image will therefore be a priority. Felipe is helped by the fact he is unsullied by the scandals affecting others in his family and he is expected to bring a modernising approach to the throne.

However, that alone may not be enough. Being seen to be useful in a broader sense and helping solve some of Spain’s pressing issues – particularly the political collision course between separatists in the northern region of Catalonia and unionists in Madrid – would be the present-day equivalent of Juan Carlos’s bold defence of democracy 33 years ago.

“The big question is: will the prince limit himself to playing a passive role, or is he going to be an active player?” says Palacio. “The king [Juan Carlos] ensured his own legitimacy through the role he played, but the prince doesn’t yet have that legitimacy.”

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