Of the 28 members of the European Union, 21 – exactly three-quarters – are republics of one sort or another. Six of the seven monarchies (one of which, Luxembourg, has a grand duke rather than a king or queen) are clustered in the north-west of the continent, and conform to the same model: a once-powerful monarch who has gradually and peacefully become almost exclusively a ceremonial figurehead.
The odd one out is Spain, whose turbulent history has seen a republic founded and then overthrown in the late nineteenth century, the restored monarchy discredited by a military dictatorship in the 1920s, a second republic, then military rebellion, civil war, a fascist victory and a dictator who nominated as his heir the grandson of the last king.
That heir, Juan Carlos, succeeded to the throne in 1975 and quite unexpectedly presided over a rapid transition back to democracy. His personal intervention secured the defeat of an attempted coup in 1981. Since then he has governed as a constitutional monarch, the only one (leaving aside the handkerchief-sized principality of Monaco) left in southern Europe.
On Monday Juan Carlos, now aged 76 and in indifferent health, announced his abdication. He will give up the throne as soon as parliament passes the appropriate enabling legislation (expected to take about two weeks), and his eldest son, the current crown prince, will become King Felipe VI.
(Pause here to reflect on the oddness of changing linguistic conventions. Generations of schoolchildren were taught, for example, that the Armada was sent against England by Phillip II, but “Phillip” is now out and “Felipe” is in.)
There’s no doubt that a good monarch can be a valuable asset even for a democracy. The problem, of course, is that hereditary succession is not a reliable way of producing talent or public-spiritedness. The reign of a conscientious and effective monarch, like Juan Carlos or our own Elizabeth II, can all too easily lull people into a false sense of security. They are not the norm: as I noted last year, “Madness, child monarchs and disputed regencies are the rule as much as the exception.”
Conversely, the departure of such a monarch, especially if they have occupied the throne a long time, can often be the signal for constitutional change to appear on the agenda. As has been noted a few times, this is one of the key issues behind the current troubles in Thailand.
Spain has had a bad few years. The centre-right government of Mariano Rajoy, elected in 2011, has presided over a deeply unpopular austerity program, which has provoked large-scale unrest without succeeding in pulling Spain out of the economic morass.
But the opposition Socialists are seen to have failed to capitalise on public discontent. The government finished ahead in last month’s European parliament election and retains its lead in the polls; support instead has drifted to the radical left, to the liberals and to separatist parties, especially in Catalonia. It is thought that next year’s election may deal a body blow to Spain’s two-party system.
Yet despite the turmoil, and despite the country’s republican traditions, there seems little chance that the transition to a new monarch will be other than orderly. The Spanish monarchy may be an anachronism, but under Juan Carlos it has been a successful one. The debate on replacing it is only just beginning.