Newsmaker: Felipe, Prince of Asturias

The Spanish prince will ascend to the throne on June 18 after his father announced his abdication this week. But it’s set to be a tough job in a recession-hit country where thousands of people have protested against the monarchy, writes Kevin Hackett.

Kagan McLeod for The National
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For all its current problems – and there are many – it’s difficult when visiting any part of Spain these days to think of it as a fascist dictatorship. But after the Spanish Civil War ended in 1939 and the rebel General Francisco Franco assumed power, Spain became exactly that. By then, the monarchy had become defunct and despite Franco stating that Spain was once again a kingdom, in 1947, the actual heir to the Spanish throne, Juan Carlos Teresa Silverio Alfonso, was prevented by him from assuming office, for fear that he was a bit too liberal.

Franco only relaxed his grip on the monarchy in 1969, when he announced that the next head of state was to be Alfonso’s son, Juan Carlos. Six years later, and two days after Franco shuffled off this mortal coil, Juan Carlos became King of Spain – the first reigning monarch for the country since 1931. And now, 45 years after Franco’s announcement, the king has finally had enough. The man born Juan Carlos Alfonso Víctor María de Borbón y Borbón-Dos Sicilias, who is now 76 years old, ­announced on Monday this week that he was abdicating in favour of his son – something that the Spanish media has been speculating on for months.

Crown Prince Felipe will, after everything goes through parliament, take to the throne in a matter of days, but the upheaval within this recession-hit country that has resulted from the announcement has brought back bad memories for many who have forgotten the good things achieved by the king. As tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Madrid and Barcelona, demanding an end to the monarchy, the efforts of Juan Carlos to overturn years of fascist rule and bring about democracy appear to have been forgotten. Rocked by scandal and the fact that Spain is broke, many Spaniards are viewing this as an ideal time to make changes far more reaching than simply having a new king on the throne.

Felipe, then, has his work cut out. But his father reckons that he’s the right man for the job, and recent opinion polls would suggest this is an opinion shared by the Spanish people – at least those who believe in the monarchy. Announcing his abdication on television, the king referred to his 46-year-old son as someone with “the maturity, preparation and sense of responsibility necessary to assume the title of head of state and begin a new era of hope, which combines the experience and momentum of a new generation”.

Born in Madrid on January 30, 1968, Felipe Juan Pablo Alfonso de Todos los Santos de Borbón y de Grecia is the only son of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia. Juan Carlos, at the time, held no official title in Spain, but Felipe’s birth was registered in the country’s civil registry as an “Infante” (used to identify someone as a son or daughter of the king) with the title “Royal ­Highness”.

His official position as a royal was not sealed until January 1977, when the king invested him as Prince of Asturias, the title normally held by the first in line. He was just 9 years old at the time. On January 30, 1986 – the day of his 18th birthday – he was sworn in at the Spanish parliament and it was official: one day, he would be king of Spain.

Far from being cushioned from the realities of life, Felipe’s initial schooling took place at Madrid’s Santa Maria de los Rosales, an institution that afforded him no particularly special treatment (his daughters currently attend there, as well). His secondary education was farther afield, however, at Lakefield College School in Ontario, Canada, and, after that, he returned to Spain and studied at the Autonomous University of Madrid, from where he graduated with a law degree. Felipe undertook three years of military training and went on to study economics, wrapping up his education when he attained a master of science in foreign service degree at Georgetown University in Washington.

Like his early years in education, Felipe’s time as an official ambassador for Spain has kept him in constant touch with the country’s ordinary people. “His goal, his only goal, is to serve Spain. It has been deeply ingrained in him that he must be the country’s main servant,” his mother, Queen Sofia, once said of him. Indeed, he has busied himself since 1995 in countless official activities at home and abroad, granting public and private audiences to large numbers of people so that he can receive accurate information on matters of national and international interest. He has kept close to movers and shakers in Spanish politics, economics and the media. He should, by all accounts, be more than prepared for his next role as king.

In the summer of 1992, Felipe competed as part of the Olympic sailing team at the Barcelona Games – something else that endeared him to his country – but his greatest PR coup was when he took a woman viewed as a commoner as his wife. On May 22, 2004, in front of the entire world (25 million watched proceedings on Spanish television alone), Spain’s most eligible bachelor married Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano, a divorced, award-winning former CNN television presenter.

He had “enjoyed the company” of many women before Ortiz, but only two before her had been what we might term “serious”. There was Isabel Sartorius, between 1989 and 1991, whose father was a nobleman and Olympic bobsledder but whose mother was a renowned cocaine addict. That was never going to last. Then there was Eva Sannum of Norway, who the royal family – and Spain as a whole – wouldn’t accept because she was a model. A lingerie model.

Ortiz, though, was squeaky clean in comparison and Spain welcomed her with open arms. On Monday, the Spanish press celebrated her as the “first middle-class queen”, pointing to the fact that she had travelled on the metro and taken out a mortgage to buy her Madrid apartment. According to The Guardian, the Spanish media got its first glimpse inside the relationship at the couple’s official announcement of their engagement. As Ortiz was explaining her plans to leave her job in the media, Felipe interrupted her. She snapped at him: “Let me finish.” Could a royal relationship possibly be more modern? Or Spanish?

Felipe has made it quite clear that his reign will differ from that of his father. And while his sister, Cristina, and her husband, Iñaki Urdangarín, have been involved in a long-running corruption scandal, the future king and queen have been taking over an increasing number of public functions from the outgoing king.

“I want to put into practice my firm and constant desire to adapt the institution to the times we are living in at each moment, leading a project that links our history with the future and that encompasses our traditions with a forward-thinking, progressive spirit,” he said in a 2011 interview. With his education in economics, law and the military, along with his experiences as an Olympian, a celebrity and now a husband and father, in what most view as an entirely normal family, it will be fascinating to see how Felipe steers his country. One thing’s certain for Spain: things can only get better.

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