As King Felipe VI took on the latest of his visits around Spain to boost the country following the coronavirus pandemic, he found himself in a wine cellar. Dressed down for Friday and wearing a mask, Felipe stood in the shadows, gazing at the cobwebs. No one would have blamed him for wanting to stay there. For outside, on a cloudy day across Spain, debate about the future of the monarchy continued to grow at a rapid pace. Felipe, used to turbulence in his short reign, is facing his most challenging time yet.
Like the spider spinning the webs above his head, Felipe is at the centre of a complex and tangled construction. It involves money, power and even talk of changing the King’s legal status. Felipe has emerged from lockdown at the Zarzuela Palace to find himself faced with an accelerating debate over the role of the monarchy.
Questions of financial irregularities have followed the House of Borbon for years but the latest threaten to rock it to its foundations. Quite literally. For they involve allegations that King Juan Carlos, the man who re-established the Monarchy in Spain following the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, set up bank accounts in Switzerland to hide money that came to him as part of a rail contract.
The Supreme Court in Spain is investigating while various media outlets have published reports into his finances. King Felipe declared in March that he would take nothing of his personal inheritance from his father and cut the allowance paid to Juan Carlos.
It’s important to state at this point that King Juan Carlos has been found guilty of nothing. These are investigations which have provided newspaper columns but no charges. There is also debate about whether any charges could be laid, should irregularities be found. Juan Carlos, as Head of State, has immunity from prosecution for everything he did during his reign which lasted from November 1975 until June 2014. But that immunity is also proving difficult for King Felipe.
It’s become part of an unexpected wave of comments from the Spanish government over royal matters in recent days. The country’s politicians usually keep a fairly neutral line in all things regal but on July 8th, that changed. The country’s Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, told a press conference that he found allegations surrounding King Juan Carlos’ finances ”disturbing”. Just hours later, in an interview, he raised the legal status of the current monarch and openly talked about removing his legal immunity. That’s been talked about before but the timing of this new declaration is part of the tangled web facing Felipe VI.
For while Pedro Sanchez spoke twice within 24 hours of concerns about the monarchy, his partners in government were also upping the ante. Mr Sanchez is Prime Minister of a coalition government in which his PSOE party works alongside the left-wing Unidas Podemos which has long questioned the role of the king in Spain. As expected, some of its members have even called for a referendum on the future of the throne and abdication. But now the party is in power, the words of its leader, Pablo Iglesias, carry more weight. He is Second Deputy Prime Minister of Spain, and as the week came to an end, he said that Pedro Sanchez’s words meant that a debate on the usefulness of the monarchy in Spanish society is now underway.
And that is possibly the biggest problem facing King Felipe. In recent days, papers have run editorials asking if the Spanish monarchy is an anachronism while stories about the royals continue to flood mainstream and social media. Every day brings fresh debate about the future of the throne.
There are articles of support, too, while other politicians have praised Felipe for his own conduct and for separating the current Monarchy from Juan Carlos as much as possible. The main conservative party, the PP, has come to Felipe’s defence with its leader, Pablo Casado, describing the king as a patriot who ”defends, like no one else, the interests of all Spaniards”. He’s also called on Pedro Sanchez to state publicly that he won’t seek either the abdication of Felipe or a referendum on the future of the monarchy.
Spain’s politicians are also under fire, criticised for using the monarchy as a distraction from unhappiness with their own policies and behaviours. And Pedro Sanchez’s attitude towards King Felipe has been the subject of debate before with criticisms levelled in the past about a lack of respect from Prime Minister to monarch.
King Felipe and Pedro Sanchez will be seen side by side again on July 16th when they attend an act of remembrance for all those who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Their thoughts, like all of those across Spain, will be with the victims of Covid-19. But even before it takes place, yet more articles have appeared questioning the relationship between the two men. Neither will want that to be the focus when they come to remember but the debate around the monarchy is turning into a story that refuses to go away.
So it’s perhaps no wonder that King Felipe seemed lost in thought as he walked through that cool wine cellar in La Rioja on July 10th. The tangled web around him shows no signs of breaking and, caught at its centre, he faces a battle to negotiate his way out. This summer is set to bring the greatest challenges of his reign so far and all eyes are on him to see how he manages them.