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The king was in the counting house

A 21st-century monarchy demands a clear definition of functions and transparent budgets

The "Urdangarin case" has stirred the normally placid waters of the Spanish monarchy. The private business affairs of the king's son-in-law, now under investigation by the courts, have placed the royal family in an uneasy situation. The immediate decision - made before any charges have been laid against the Duke of Palma - of removing him from all official events, is dictated by mere prudence, though it will probably not be sufficient to contain the problem posed by a possible trial of an infanta's husband.

More far-reaching is King Juan Carlos' decision to release a detailed account of the Royal House's expenses. This exercise in transparency is the best course of action to dispel doubts about an institution that enjoys the affections of a majority of Spanish citizens, principally due to the service rendered in the difficult times of the transition to democracy after the death of Franco, when the future of democracy and of constitutional monarchy was at stake.

Article 65 of the Spanish Constitution, approved in 1978, leaves in the king's hands the discretional distribution of the general sum received by the Royal House, which at present amounts to ¤8.43 million annually. This article having been left as it stands, the budget is an entirely opaque one. This is a matter that no government has cared to address, though some parliamentary motions have been presented in the past.

The present royal gesture, while obviously a response to a critical situation, ought to serve to convert into a norm what now has only a voluntary character. This new legislature should also serve to define which members of the royal family have a budget of public money assigned to them - the king having entrusted them with representing the institution in his name - and which others prefer to remain in the background to devote their time to business or professional activities, eschewing any representative function.

It is not easy to draw this line, but it must be kept in mind that the ¤8.43 million that defray the expenses of the king, and of the Prince and Princess of Asturias, are only a small part of the public budget assigned to the Crown. The maintenance of the buildings, the payroll for many of the employees, and travel expenses, are handled respectively by the National Heritage Trust, Public Administrations and the Foreign Ministry. These and other budget headings are substantial enough to make state supervision and transparency obligatory for an institution so important in the architecture of the state.

The Urdangarin case is a test of the adaptive capacity of the Crown, an institution that has meaning precisely insofar as it fulfills the function of representation of our country. Nothing could damage it as much as impulsive reactions or ill-considered statements, in the face of a situation that is delicate by nature. The courts must do their job, but the Royal House must also do its own to preserve, above all else, the interests of the democratic state.