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How Spain’s King Felipe kept low profile in Catalonia in 2016

Royal residence denies link between reduced presence and separatist sentiment in the region

The king of Spain made significantly fewer visits to Catalonia in 2016 than he did in 2015. The number of official trips was down 40% compared with a year earlier, his first full year in office after ascending to the throne in June 2014. There is no premeditated reason for this decline, say sources at La Zarzuela, the royal residence.

Felipe VI at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Ampliar foto
Felipe VI at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. (EPA) EFE

Sources in the Spanish government, which helps coordinate the monarch’s agenda, also ruled out any specific motive. Instead, they pointed to fewer overall activities last year as a result of the political stalemate that forced Spain to function under a caretaker government for close to a year, and noted that the king makes regular visits to the region for events such as the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. 

But relations between La Zarzuela and the Catalan government cooled visibly last year. The first indication came in January, when Felipe VI refused to meet with Carme Forcadell, the speaker of the Catalan parliament and an outspoken supporter of independence for the region.

During these visits, Felipe VI constantly alluded to “what unites us” in a bid to counter the separatists’ message

That move came in response to the fact that the incoming Catalan government had openly snubbed the Spanish monarch by failing to swear allegiance to him at the regional premier’s inauguration ceremony.

In 2015, Felipe VI traveled to Catalonia almost every month with the king stressing that “Catalonia is never a problem,” although he did not sidestep the issue of a growing independence sentiment manifested by large protests two years earlier and the holding of a non-binding plebiscite in November 2014 on whether the region should split from the rest of Spain.

During those numerous visits, Felipe VI constantly alluded to “what unites us” in a bid to counter the separatists’ message. In 2015, the Spanish king was in Catalonia 10 times, participating in 12 events. Some of these were part of the annual routine, but others, like his presence at the final game of the King’s Cup soccer tournament, were highly unusual.

Carme Forcadell, the Catalan house speaker, was snubbed by Felipe VI in January 2016.
Carme Forcadell, the Catalan house speaker, was snubbed by Felipe VI in January 2016.

In 2016, however, Felipe VI only made six trips to the region and was seen at nine events. At this time, pro-sovereignty forces in the regional parliament were pushing through a series of legal initiatives to help Catalonia “disconnect” from Spain by 2018.

Since then, the political situation in Catalonia has been alluded to only in indirect ways by the royal house. In his recent Christmas message, Felipe VI made a few generic references to it, but without ever mentioning the region by name.

“The times we live in are no longer ripe for closing in on ourselves, but for opening up to the world,” he said during his address, in what is widely construed as a reference to Catalan separatism. “Nor are these good times for fractures, for internal division, but for stressing what unites us, and to build on our diversity.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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