Spain embraces reign of King Felipe VI

Spain’s new king, Felipe VI, was sworn in yesterday in a relatively modest ceremony which monarchists hope will usher in a new era of popularity for the troubled royal household.

King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia appear on the balcony of the Royal Palace in Madrid yesterday. Picture: Reuters
King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia appear on the balcony of the Royal Palace in Madrid yesterday. Picture: Reuters
King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia appear on the balcony of the Royal Palace in Madrid yesterday. Picture: Reuters

King Felipe immediately called for Spain to stay united but to respect the cultural differences among its regions, ending his speech by saying “thank you” in four languages: Castilian Spanish, Basque, Catalan and Galician.

Felipe’s kingship comes after his father, Juan Carlos, announced he was to abdicate earlier this month following a series of scandals that led many Spaniards – especially younger people – to question the role of the monarchy itself.

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One of the biggest challenges for Felipe will be whether he can use his symbolic role to spur dialogue between the leaders of Spain and the wealthy north-east region of Catalonia, where there is a growing independence movement.

The 46-year-old king wore military uniform and swore loyalty to Spain’s constitution before addressing dignitaries in the lower house of parliament with much of his speech dedicated to national unity.

“There is room for all of us in a united and diverse Spain,” King Felipe said.

He stressed respect for the diverse cultures and languages within Spain, a clear message to people in Catalonia and Basque Country who want to break away.

The multilingual gesture, however, got a cool response from the regional leaders of Catalonia and Basque Country, who were sitting in the parliament listening to the speech and were notably restrained in their applause.

After the ceremony the king rode in an open Rolls-Royce through central Madrid with his wife, Queen Letizia, a former journalist. They were escorted by mounted guards with tasselled helmets along a route decorated by red and yellow flowers, the colours of the Spanish flag.

Thousands of well-wishers lined the streets, waving flags and shouting in Spanish “long live the king”.

Hundreds of Madrid buses were also decorated with Spanish flags. The palace gave out 100,000 flags for well-wishers to wave as the new king was driven to a reception at the royal palace, a building dating back to 1738, used for visits of heads of state and special ceremonies.

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Security was very tight in central Madrid, with helicopters buzzing overhead, and police had carried out house-to-house searches along the processional route, with 7,000 police and 120 snipers out on the streets.

“The new king is going to contribute his own personality and ideas and a lot of people hope he will bring change to Spain. I personally hope for greater unity,” said a 20-year-old called Alba, who was waiting with her mother and sister to catch a glimpse of the king.

The ceremony had little pomp and circumstance compared with royal handovers in other countries.

It was more of a legal process, attended by politicians, high-level politicians and some members of the royal family. No foreign leaders were invited.

The event has been designed to chime with an era of austerity, palace officials said, mindful that more than one in four Spanish workers is unemployed despite claims that a recovery has begun.

“We need to win the battle to create jobs, which is Spaniards’ primary concern,” King Felipe said in his speech.

His father, Juan Carlos, did not attend the event to allow the spotlight to rest fully on the new monarch, according to the palace.

The outgoing king and his wife, Queen Sofia, also stayed away from an afternoon reception at the palace with 2,000 guests from all walks of society.

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Felipe has remained untouched by a royal corruption scandal, in which his brother-in-law, Inaki Urdangarin, husband of his sister Princess Cristina, is charged with embezzling millions of euros of public funds in a case that shocked ordinary Spaniards.

Juan Carlos also lost favour after going on a secret elephant hunting trip at the height of Spain’s financial crisis in 2012.

While polls show the decision to hand over to Felipe has boosted the popularity of the royals, almost two thirds now also support the idea of a referendum on whether Spain should continue to have a monarchy, according to a recent poll for El Pais newspaper. A plan for a republican rally was refused permission by city authorities.