Former Spanish king returns from self-exile for visit after financial scandal

Juan Carlos to meet son, King Felipe, after two years in Abu Dhabi following abdication

Sanxenxo is a resort on Spain's picturesque northwestern coast, known for its beaches and water sports. But this weekend, the town is at the centre of a furious debate over the country's monarchy.

On Thursday evening, the former Spanish king, Juan Carlos, arrived in Sanxenxo to spend the weekend at a sailing regatta. It is the first time Juan Carlos, who abdicated in 2014, has returned to the country since going to live in Abu Dhabi two years ago to escape a storm of scandals related to his finances.

The Galician town is a fitting place for him to visit, given that he spent several days there in the summer of 2020 just before going into self-exile.

“We regret that it’s been almost two years since he has been here, but fortunately, this weekend we can convey the affection we feel for him,” said the town’s mayor, Telmo Martín. When asked where the former monarch will stay, he quipped: “He won’t sleep on the street.”

Martín belongs to the conservative Popular Party (PP) and parties on the political right have remained broadly loyal to the former monarch. But the clubby conviviality expressed by the mayor angers Spanish republicans. They see Juan Carlos as a blight on Spanish democracy; a man who has used his position to accumulate enormous wealth, often by questionable methods, and who has avoided paying a legal price.

Pablo Echenique, of the leftist Unidas Podemos party, said Juan Carlos's visit demonstrated that he was above the law and that he was returning "to laugh at the Spanish people".

Juan Carlos's flight two years ago was triggered by controversy surrounding a €65 million payment he received in 2008 from the Saudi royal family and which he then paid to his former lover, the German-born businesswoman Corinna Larsen. Investigators suspected that the money, which was kept in a Swiss bank account, may have been a bribe linked to the awarding of a fast-speed rail construction contract.

There was a separate examination of offshore funds linked to Juan Carlos in Jersey and, finally, an investigation into €500,000 he was believed to have received from a Mexican tycoon.

In March, all three cases were shelved, for different reasons, including the fact the former head of state had paid €5 million in tax arrears. But the revelations about such huge amounts of money changing hands and the fact that, although the investigations had been closed, he had not been cleared of all wrongdoing, left a sour taste for many Spaniards.

Democratic guardian

All of this contrasts sharply with the first decades of Juan Carlos's reign, when, defying the expectations of those who saw him as a mere puppet of Francisco Franco, he committed himself to helping usher in parliamentary democracy after the dictator's death in 1975. In 1981, he was tested again as a group of civil guard officers attempted a coup d'état. When the putsch failed after Juan Carlos went on live television to voice his opposition to the rebels, his credentials as the guardian of Spanish democracy were cemented.

It helped that the Spanish media kept a reverential distance. But the decades-long honeymoon came to a sudden end in 2012, when it was revealed that he had been on an elephant hunting trip in Botswana with Larsen, just as Spain was weathering the worst of the euro-zone crisis. That incident led to his abdication, in favour of his son, Felipe, in 2014.

But the scandals kept coming and Juan Carlos could yet go on trial in the UK for allegedly harassing and threatening Larsen after their relationship ended. His legacy, once built on his perceived statesmanship and courage, has been drastically revised down, to something much more tawdry.

It has also hindered King Felipe’s efforts to restore the crown’s image.

"[Juan Carlos] left his successor a poisoned chalice and ever since then his every move has given ammunition to those who want to destroy what he, more than anyone, helped build," noted political commentator Ignacio Varela.

King Felipe has scrupulously sought to distance himself from his father in recent years, even avoiding seeing him when making an official visit to Abu Dhabi last Sunday. He took the same approach in cutting off his brother-in-law, Iñaki Urdangarin, who was jailed for embezzlement in 2018.

But father and son are due to meet in Madrid on Monday, before Juan Carlos flies back to his refuge in the Gulf. While it could be an opportunity to mend their relationship, repairing the monarchy’s prestige will be a much more daunting task.