The king made a gesture on Wednesday that honors him. His words when leaving hospital — “I’m sorry, I made a mistake; it won’t happen again”— in reference to a private elephant-hunting trip he made, in the midst of a financial storm, constitute an unprecedented act, as has been acknowledged by many politicians in parliamentary circles. No leader has done anything similar in Spain, and neither had Don Juan Carlos previously acknowledged an error in public. It should be noted that the king opted to speak in person, ruling out recourse to the coldness of a written statement that would have drained his words of credibility, and prevented him from showing his contrition before a television camera, aware of the seriousness of the error he committed, the discontent it caused, and the damage it has done to the prestige of the Spanish monarchy.
Don Juan Carlos has promised that it “won’t happen again,” and now it is up to the politicians, and above all the government, to define how to modernize an institution that has rendered proven service to the public. This modernization and the definition of the monarchy’s rules of engagement have been pending for some time. After the hunting incident in Botswana, the formalization of the relationship between the Royal Household and the government are even more necessary.
Constitutionally, the monarchy needs the endorsement of the head of government, of a Cabinet minister or the speaker of Congress for its acts to carry legal weight. But the duties of the executive with respect to the activities of the monarch do not end there. While the monarch has the right to privacy, the government needs to have knowledge of and approve his activities, given that they are of political import. This is necessary not only to strengthen the role of the monarch as an arbiter and moderator as afforded him by the Constitution, but also to allow him to work discretely in the area of Spain’s foreign relations, and in general to stand as a point of reference for national cohesion in these times of economic and social crisis.
The positive role the head of state should play links him by necessity to the government and Spanish society, neither of which can be disregarded. There are also other ambiguities and ingrained practices regarding the activities of the royal family that need to be addressed while accentuating the transparency of the Royal Household, clarifying the professional conduct of the members of the monarchy, and formalizing a legal statute for the heir to the throne.
It needs to be repeated: only populism and yellow journalism would mix the merited criticism of the behavior of a relative of the king, or the king himself in a concrete case, with the debate on the future of a monarchy that was at the head of the restoration of democracy and sovereignty to the people of Spain. The solution to the problems besetting us requires us to eschew the theatrics that distract us from essential questions in a critical moment for Spain.