King Felipe VI of Spain and Queen Letizia with their daughters Leonor and Sofia.
Photo: The Times / Getty
Yesterday Spain lost the World Cup but gained a new king. If that seems like a poor deal to some Spaniards it might provide football lovers with a clue to the recovery of their country’s recent fame on the soccer field: perhaps it is time for the old team to retire and let a younger team take over. That is what King Juan Carlos I has done in abdicating the Spanish throne, which he has held since its restoration in 1975 after the death of dictator Francisco Franco.
At the age of 76 Juan Carlos is not aged by modern standards – Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom is 88 and her immediate heir, Prince Charles, is 65 – but an air of scandal has begun to swirl around his family. He and Queen Sofia live separately, one daughter is divorced, another is embroiled with her husband in questionable business deals. His popularity plummeted when it emerged that he had indulged in the luxury of an elephant-hunting safari, while at home Spaniards were hunting scarce jobs and eating the bread of austerity.
Of course, you don’t have to be a king to succumb to the temptations of luxury, as the amazing estate of former Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych demonstrates. That included a whole zoo, while Juan Carlos had to go to Africa to find his rare animals.
Still, the foibles and occasional bad example of monarchs and their families do raise the question of whether they are one of life’s optional extras. Time was when European kings and queens ruled “By the grace of God” and some still have that in their titles. Now that they rule only in a ceremonial sense by the grace and favour of the populace, they really have to prove their worth.
So what does the new Spanish monarch, King Felipe VI, need to do to earn his keep? Here are three ideas.
Cultivate national unity. The great value of having one pre-eminent leader is that he or she can be a focus of unity. Spain needs this as much as any other modern country with a diverse population (millions of immigrants) and breakaway movements – as there are in northern Spain. A personal focus has more intrinsic appeal than something abstract like a Constitution. Presidents come from political party backgrounds while royalty is hereditary and stands outside party politics.
In his inauguration speech to parliament King Felipe alluded to the separatist movements of Catalonia and the Basque Country: “In this united and diverse Spain, based on the equality and solidarity among its people, we can all fit.” However, the New York Times reports that the heads of the governments of those regions did not join in the applause at the end of the speech.
If Juan Carlos could pull post-Franco Spain together, Felipe should do all in his power to keep it from breaking up again.
Support Spain’s best traditions. Nations need traditions. Old traditions – values that grew from the soil, so to speak, and were not manufactured by committees. The monarchy, like marriage and the family, is one of those natural institutions that, for all its weaknesses, has not been bettered by modern inventions. Are any of the democratic republics – even America – in better social health than the European monarchies?
The strength of the Spanish family was once legendary, but Spanish governments of recent decades have promoted some of the worst trends in Western society – such as liberalising abortion and introducing quickie divorces – with the result that a recent report from that country claimed it had the worst family policy and statistics in Europe. On average women in Spain have only 1.32 children. Abysmal!
King Felipe has been lucky enough to inherit one Spanish tradition that has survived modernity, at least in symbolic form. He needs to do something for the Spanish family.
Be a real role model. More than policies and plans and new techniques, nations today need moral leadership. The Spanish royal family, like others, seem to have slipped in this regard. Nobody, anywhere, needs more royals who cannot hold their marriages together, who cannot manage their finances well enough not to indulge in skulduggery, who indulge in luxuries while their countrymen through no fault of their own are struggling to pay the rent. All this part of monarchy should be consigned to history.
What Spain needs most from King Felipe and Queen Letizia is an example of 1) strong family life, 2) a modest lifestyle combined with generosity towards those in need, and 3) placing commitment to solving the problems of the country ahead of increased prosperity for themselves.
These things apply to all monarchs, presidents and other public leaders, but because monarchs generally last longer in their jobs they can have a greater impact if they do it well. It’s a big ask, but somebody has to rise to it.
King Felipe told parliament yesterday: “I feel proud of Spaniards, and nothing would honour me more than if through my work and my daily efforts Spaniards would feel proud of me.”
Congratulations, your Highness, and may you give not only Spain but the rest of the world reason to admire you.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.