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Exile of Juan Carlos shows constitutional cracks in modern Spain

Ben Sills, Laura Millan Lombrana and Rodrigo Orihuela, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

MADRID, Spain -- First he gave up his crown, then he was stripped of his official income. Now Juan Carlos I is abandoning the country where he reigned for almost four decades for self-exile and disgrace.

The public humiliation of the 82-year-old former king is driven by a desperate effort to shore up the Spanish monarchy: Felipe VI, the present ruler, has been battling for months to isolate himself from his father's mounting legal problems. But it's not just the monarchy that's at stake.

Less than three years after separatists in the northeastern region of Catalonia tried to force a breakaway from Spain, the royal family's travails are giving fresh encouragement to the independence movement.

"This is an opportunity," Pere Aragones, the pro-independence vice president of Catalonia, said in an interview. "We need to be very demanding now, because if there's ever a moment to rethink everything, it's now."

The risk for the Spanish establishment is that a collapse in support for the crown could trigger a broader debate on the constitution and open up the scars of Catalonia all over again. That would mean the resurfacing of a politically divisive issue that polarized Spain while weighing on government bonds and hurting stocks, business and outside investment.

To be sure, the formal hurdles to constitutional reform are high. Abolishing the monarchy or changing national borders would require a super majority in two successive parliaments and then a referendum.

 

But the Catalan crisis of October 2017 showed that the legal order can start to wobble when you have heavily armed riot police clashing with protestors on the streets.

And this time around it wouldn't be the conservative People's Party in power in Madrid, but a left-wing coalition that is much more ambivalent on the issue of Spanish unity. Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez twice negotiated votes from Catalan separatists to take office, while his coalition partner, Pablo Iglesias of far-left group Podemos, favors a referendum on Catalan independence (though says he would make the case for a united Spain).

On Tuesday, Sanchez said it was appropriate for Juan Carlos to leave the country and that Spain needs solid institutions. Iglesias said his exit "leaves the monarchy in a very compromised position."

Juan Carlos was born in exile in Rome after his father stepped down as king, and reestablished the monarchy after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. But whatever regard he gained for his actions then has long since faded, and his deteriorating reputation has been dragging down the monarchy since before his own abdication in 2014.The former king's latest problems stem from a Swiss prosecutor's investigation into payments he allegedly received from fellow royals in the Middle East and subsequent transfers to a former lover. The Supreme Court in Madrid, the only Spanish institution with the authority to investigate the former head of state, is considering whether to open its own probe based on the information from Geneva.

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