Is Spain’s Royal Family Finished?
Corruption charges against the former king forced him into exile—and the latest scandal could be the nail in the coffin for the monarchy.
On Aug. 3, 82-year-old Juan Carlos I, the king of Spain from 1975 to 2014, announced his decision to leave the country because of “public repercussions that certain past events in my life are causing.” In a letter published on the Spanish royal household’s website, he claimed his departure would also allow his son, King Felipe VI, to continue to perform his royal duties in “tranquility.”
The letter was the final step in a downward spiral that began eight years ago—but the former monarch’s ignominious departure is not, or at least not solely, about shielding the reputation of a once adored Spanish institution; it’s also about self-protection. And it’s not the first time that a member of the House of Bourbon has resorted to such tactics in moments of crisis.
Things started to go wrong in 2012, when the king took an ill-advised hunting trip to Botswana rumored to have cost around 40,000 euros (about $60,000), which was paid for by Mohamed Eyad Kayali—an advisor to the Saudi royal family who would later be named as an offshore account holder in the 2016 Panama Papers. As the rest of Spain endured a recession and soaring unemployment, details of such a costly holiday couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Spanish royals.
Juan Carlos was also said to have been hunting elephants, despite then being the honorary president of the Spanish branch of the World Wildlife Fund: By the time he’d apologized for going to Botswana—“I made a mistake,” he said—a petition calling for his resignation from the charity’s presidency had collected 85,000 signatures. Eventually bowing to public pressure, the king abdicated in 2014, handing over the reins to his son, Felipe.
Yet Juan Carlos enjoyed great popularity throughout all but the last few years of his reign. The fascist dictator Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain from the end of the civil war in 1939 to his death in 1975, personally chose Juan Carlos as his successor as head of state in 1969, passing over the future king’s father—Juan, Count of Barcelona—in the process.
On taking over from the generalissimo, Juan Carlos won enormous respect among Spaniards for steering the country toward democracy, rather than perpetuating Francoism, as Franco had expected him to do.
Juan Carlos is also credited with defusing the attempted coup of February 1981, when armed forces stormed the parliament in a rebellion against Spain’s nascent democracy. The king made a televised address to the nation calling for the rule of law, much as Felipe would do 36 years later in response to escalating tensions between the central government and Catalan separatists. Shortly afterward, the rebels surrendered without killing a single hostage. Juan Carlos’s televised intervention in 1981 appeared to have been decisive in quelling a military coup aimed at destroying Spain’s fragile democracy.
But in recent years, public attention has switched from these laudable achievements to the former king’s alleged fraudulent activities. In 2018, the online newspaper El Español published transcripts of secretly recorded conversations between the German Danish businesswoman Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein—Juan Carlos’s former lover and his traveling companion on the 2012 Botswana trip—and an ex-police officer, in which she allegedly talks about his money laundering efforts and is heard to say, “The king has no concept of what is legal and what isn’t.”
Prompted by such rumors and reports, the Swiss prosecutor Yves Bertossa launched an investigation into Juan Carlos that same year, focused on an 88 million euro ($104 million) “gift” he received from the then-Saudi king in 2008 and suspected kickbacks for a 6.7 billion euro ($7.9 billion) contract to build a high-speed rail link between Medina and Mecca, secured by a Spanish consortium in 2012.
Bertossa is also looking into the origin of offshore funds held in a Liechtenstein-based foundation linked to Swiss bank accounts. Finally, this June, Spain’s Supreme Court opened inquiries seeking to determine if Juan Carlos was guilty of any crimes in relation to the Saudi money or the Medina-Mecca contract.
Attempting to protect the already tarnished public image of the royal household, Felipe has dissociated himself as much as possible from his father. In March, the king took the extreme measures of cancelling Juan Carlos’s annual state stipend of 200,000 euros ($222,000) and renouncing his inheritance, reacting to rumors that he stood to benefit from some of his father’s offshore funds.
These moves aren’t without precedent: In June 2015, Felipe stripped his sister Cristina of her Duchess of Palma de Mallorca title because her husband, Inaki Urdangarin, faced fraud charges. In 2018—the same year that Swiss authorities started looking into Juan Carlos’s financial affairs—Urdangarin was sentenced to five years and 10 months in prison for embezzlement of public funds. It was not a good year for the Spanish royal family.
Juan Carlos’s hasty departure from Spain is not without precedent, either. His grandfather, King Alfonso XIII, fled to Italy in 1931, when that year’s elections deposed the monarchy and led to the declaration of the Second Republic, which lasted until Franco’s rebellion and the subsequent outbreak of civil war in 1939.
Alfonso’s grandmother, Isabella II—Juan Carlos’s great-great-grandmother—also left the country, heading to France after the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1868, before formally abdicating in favor of her son, King Alfonso XII, in 1870. Juan Carlos himself was born in 1938 in Rome, where his grandfather and other members of the Spanish royal family settled after the formation of Spain’s Second Republic.
The most recent royal flight from Spain has been presented by both Juan Carlos and Felipe as a last-ditch attempt to save the monarchy from further reputational damage. But it’s hard to believe that the former king is not more concerned about protecting himself from Swiss and Spanish authorities and from the backlash that will follow if their inquiries prove justified. (Although in a world of 24-hour international news, internet, and social media, it’s questionable whether he has really escaped the latter at all.)
Staying in Spain would also have prevented speculation about the extradition policies of the country for which he is headed, the key candidate currently being the Dominican Republic. The former king’s lawyer has stated that, despite leaving Spain, Juan Carlos will still be available to assist public prosecutors should it be necessary; nevertheless, his choice of exile destination will be highly revealing. A photo published by a Spanish news agency on Aug. 8 appeared to show him stepping off a plane in Abu Dhabi—perhaps a sign that the king still has contacts in the Middle East, as he did at the time of the Botswana scandal.
Political reaction in Spain to Juan Carlos’s departure has been divided. Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has signaled his respect for the decision, but in an interview in early July, he described the allegations against the former king as “disturbing” and said there was “no room for impunity” in modern Spain.
Sánchez also suggested that he favored updating the 1978 Spanish Constitution, according to which the head of state is “inviolable”—in other words, Juan Carlos is legally immune from any offenses he may have committed before his abdication in 2014. The wider context of these remarks is an ongoing debate about constitutional reform in Spain, in which Sánchez’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party and its leftist governing partner Podemos are among the most vocal campaigners for redrafting parts of the original constitution.
Sánchez, however, has rejected all demands from Podemos and Catalan and Basque groups for a parliamentary inquiry into Juan Carlos’s alleged financial misdemeanors. Somewhat less surprisingly, the conservative Popular Party (PP), traditionally the party of choice for Spanish monarchists, showed its unwavering support for Juan Carlos, praising his “determining and decisive role” in Spain’s shift to democracy in 1975. The centrist Ciudadanos, meanwhile, said the former king’s departure would enable his son to “carry out his functions in the best circumstances.”
The PP, it seems, is unwilling or unable to entertain the prospect that this once revered king is now guilty of financial crimes: As a result, the party will sustain some reputational damage of its own if Juan Carlos turns out to be guilty. Ciudananos’s much vaguer statement, focusing on Felipe rather than the alleged offenses of his father, does not pin the newer party into any such corner.
Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias adopted a much less ambiguous line than his centrist rivals, announcing on Twitter that Juan Carlos’s flight was an “undignified act” and that he should “respond to his actions in Spain and before the people”—a course of action that would perhaps have been more indicative of innocence than flight to foreign shores. Catalonia’s deputy premier, Pere Aragonès, expressed a similar sentiment when he wrote on Twitter that “some people had to go into exile because they were democrats; others leave because they are corrupt”—an allusion to former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium after orchestrating the illegal independence referendum of 2017.
The Spanish monarchy is at a critical moment in its history, with polls suggesting that Spaniards are roughly split down the middle over whether Spain should remain a constitutional monarchy or become a republic once more. Ahead of this year’s opening of parliament in February, Basque, Catalan, and Galician leftist parties jointly declared that “we have no king” and described the Spanish royal family as an “anachronistic institution,” a position that is shared, in its essentials, by the government’s junior coalition partner, Podemos.
Spaniards are tired of corruption, especially of scandals featuring already wealthy public figures allegedly accruing even larger fortunes at times of national hardship. Just as details of Juan Carlos’s lavish hunting holiday to Botswana broke at the height of the last recession, so the most recent controversy comes as the coronavirus pandemic’s economic impact starts to bite. For the Spanish royals, the timing could be just as disastrous now as it was in 2012.
Mark Nayler is a freelance journalist based in Spain. He writes on Spanish politics and culture for southern Spain's English-language newspaper, Sur in English, and for The Spectator.