Will Spain's commoner queen help to save the monarchy?

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By Graham Keeley
Spain's King Felipe and his wife Queen Letizia arrive at the Imperial Palace for the Court Banquet after the enthronement ceremony of Emperor Naruhito in Tokyo, 2019.
Spain's King Felipe and his wife Queen Letizia arrive at the Imperial Palace for the Court Banquet after the enthronement ceremony of Emperor Naruhito in Tokyo, 2019.   -  Copyright  Pierre-Emmanuel Deletree/Pool Photo via AP

As Queen Letizia of Spain celebrates her 50th birthday behind the gilded gates of the Zarzuela palace near Madrid on Thursday, she is unlikely to want the glare of the world’s media to get a glimpse of the festivities.

The fanfare around the queen’s birthday celebrations has focused attention in Spain on the way she has helped to transform the fortunes of the country’s royal family, observers of the monarchy say.

A small cottage industry has sprung up with books published to mark the occasion. Queen Letizia was the star of a recent documentary series about the royal family called Los Borbones (the Bourbons) and a spate of newspaper profiles have followed. 

When King Felipe and Letizia acceded to the crown in 2014, the monarchy had fallen to its lowest level of popularity since the restoration of democracy in 1975 after the death of the dictator General Francisco Franco.

The former king Juan Carlos abdicated after a succession of financial scandals and revelations about women he was not married to. After leaving the throne, the 84-year-old ex-monarch faced three judicial investigations into allegations of corruption which were eventually shelved.

He has spent two years in self-imposed exile in the United Arab Emirates after leaving Spain in 2020 amid a cloud of financial scandal. When he returned to Spain briefly this summer, he seemed puzzled when journalists asked him if he would like to apologise to Spaniards over his conduct. "For what?" he said.

AP Photo/Lalo R. Villar
Spain's former King Juan Carlos waves before a reception at a nautical club prior to a yachting event in Sanxenxo, north western Spain, Friday, May 20, 2022.AP Photo/Lalo R. Villar

Juan Carlos still faces a trial next year in London after his ex-mistress Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein alleged he harassed her and her children in the British capital for years.

Lawyers for the former king claimed he was immune from prosecution as he was a member of the royal family but a High Court judge in London dismissed this claim.

Juan Carlos was granted partial permission to appeal events before 2014 when he was king, according to zu Sayn-Wittgenstein's lawyers, who added however that most of her case relates to alleged events after 2014. Lawyers for Juan Carlos said they did not want to comment.

Respected for the way he steered Spain from dictatorship to democracy and stood down a failed military coup in 1981, Juan Carlos is now more of a liability to monarchists, observers say.

“Whatever Felipe does, he is always embarrassed by his father,” Pilar Eyre, the author of a series of books about the monarchy, told Euronews.

When he acceded to the throne, King Felipe set about introducing reforms to prevent a repeat of scandals which also embroiled his own sister Princess Cristina. In 2017, she stood trial along with her husband Iñaki Urdangarin on embezzlement charges and he was jailed for five years and only emerged from prison last year. The princess was acquitted.

Letizia’s strength has been that she has never been tarnished by scandal and appears to be trying, with Felipe, to drag the institution of monarchy into the 21st century. The royal family has been slimmed down to only the immediate family and a series of anti-corruption measures have been adopted like a ban on presents and taking part in business.

Mábel Galaz, a journalist and author of Royal Letizia, a biography of the Spanish queen which is published in Spain this week, said both Felipe and Letizia have worked as a team to distance the royal family from the scandals which had threatened the monarchy.

“She has no link to any scandals at all which has helped the monarchy,” she told Euronews.

“But we should not forget that Felipe announced a new period when he acceded to the crown. He wanted to make the family smaller and introduce reforms which would stop any contamination in the future.”

She said that the royal couple have also promoted Princess Leonor, the heir to the throne, as the new face of the modern monarchy.

Leonor, 17, is studying for her final year of school at the UWC Atlantic College in Wales – known as the Hogwarts for Hippies – as the school is in a 12th-century castle.

When she is in Spain, Leonor has already given speeches alongside her younger sister Sofia and the future queen will train with the armed forces when she leaves school.

AP Photo/Manu Fernandez
Leonor, Princess of Asturias, delivers her speech during the 2021 Princess of Asturias Awards ceremony in Oviedo, northern Spain, Friday Oct. 22, 2021AP Photo/Manu Fernandez

Amid initial hostility from Juan Carlos, other members of the royal family and conservative courtiers, Letizia struggled to win over Spaniards. At first, the Spanish media often portrayed her as remote and unapproachable, but this is changing.

In a recent profile of the queen in El País newspaper, Pilar Cancela, Spain's secretary of state for international cooperation, said: “The Queen is our most important help. I thought she was cold and distant, but she is professional, normal and fun.”

However, whatever the ‘Letizia effect’, the drip-drip of scandals plaguing the royal family has spurred support for the republican cause.

A poll in June for El Confidencial, an online news site, found that 39% of Spaniards supported replacing the monarchy with a republic, while 38.9% supported the crown.

The far-left Unidas Podemos (United We Can) party, the junior party in Spain’s coalition government, has pressed for a referendum on the future of monarchy but the move has been resisted by other political parties so stands little chance of prospering.

“A succession of polls has shown that Spain is divided on the question of whether we should have a monarchy or a republic and that we should have a referendum on the issue,” José Manuel García, an economist and republican campaigner, told Euronews.

This story has been updated to reflect that the former King has been granted partial permission to appeal the ruling.