Will Juan Carlos, the disgraced King of Spain, have a royal return?

MADRID — At Casa Lucio, an old-fashioned restaurant near Madrid’s royal palace that Spain’s former king Juan Carlos frequented, people chatted on a recent afternoon about the disgraced monarch’s possible return . Javier Blázquez, whose family owns the restaurant, said he was ready to welcome back his favorite guest.

In 2014, after a series of scandals, the nearly 40-year-old king abdicated the throne. When prosecutors began investigating his finances, he mysteriously disappeared in 2020, then resurfaced weeks later in the United Arab Emirates, where Spanish prosecutors were unable to reach him.

But recent months have seen a stroke of luck for 83-year-old Juan Carlos. A number of cases against him were dropped or resolved, leading to calls from some Spaniards to let him return home without fear of spending the rest of his life. in prison.

“I’m happy he’s coming back,” Mr Blázquez said. “The reign of Juan Carlos brought the longest era of peace and prosperity for Spain.”

It was a steep fall from grace for a monarch who was loved by Spaniards with the kind of adoration that many Britons revere Queen Elizabeth II. He is credited with restoring Spanish democracy and unifying the country after dictator Francisco Franco, who died in 1975, made Juan Carlos his successor.

Things started looking up for the former king when Swiss prosecutors recently announced they would drop a money laundering case against Juan Carlos which involved bribes for a high-speed rail line in Saudi Arabia and for a Spanish company. Another investigation in Spain was halted this year after Juan Carlos paid more than five million euros in back taxes in 2020 and 2021.

And Spanish prosecutors say they see little hope of success in a string of remaining corruption cases because the alleged wrongdoing took place before the abdication, when Juan Carlos enjoyed immunity from prosecution.

“It makes sense that he comes and stays here,” Felipe González, Spain’s former prime minister, said this month.

The country’s current prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, said recently that the royal family had not consulted him about a possible return and that Juan Carlos “has yet to give an explanation” for his scandals, although it is unclear not what that would imply.

A spokesperson for the royal family did not respond to a request for comment.

Iñaki Gabilondo, a Spanish journalist who spent decades as a presenter of the country’s main news broadcasts, said Juan Carlos had been allowed to return to Spain. The fact that he had to flee the country and pay millions in back taxes had caused lasting damage to him and his family.

“He may be free from the law, but his reputation is completely tainted,” Mr Gabilondo said.

Juan Carlos once enjoyed wide support across the political spectrum, reflected in an old Spanish motto that reads, “I’m not a monarchist, I’m a Carlist Juan.”

Much of this goodwill was historical.

Although named as Franco’s heir, Juan Carlos largely shunned the dictator’s legacy and secretly met with opposition politicians to plan Spain’s transition to democracy.

In 1981, when Spanish soldiers stormed into Congress with weapons, Juan Carlos went on television to denounce them, a move credited with ending the coup and saving Spanish democracy.

For years, Juan Carlos seemed to be leading a new kind of monarchy, Mr. Gabilondo said.

“It was meant to be the crown without the trappings of the court,” he said, adding that many had hoped Juan Carlos’ reign would be without the palatial lavishness and intrigue typical of other monarchies.

But for some, the corruption scandals and news that he may return to have escaped virtually unscathed have tarnished the image of Juan Carlos and the entire royal family, especially his son, Felipe VI, who is currently king. .

“Anyone else who holds the same position can just do the same,” said Ione Belarra, Spain’s social rights minister, who belongs to the left-wing Podemos party.

Luis Galán Soldevilla, a law expert at the University of Cordoba, said the challenge for prosecutors was not only to mount complicated cases that crossed international borders, but also the fact that the target was a former chief executive. ‘State.

One of the key cases studied in both Spain and Switzerland involved a high-speed rail line linking the Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina.

In recordings published in Spanish media, Corinna Larsen – a woman who claims to be Juan Carlos’ lover – and a former high-ranking police officer reportedly spoke of Juan Carlos receiving a $100 million bribe for helping to secure the contract. Spanish company that built the line. The royal family has neither confirmed nor denied a relationship.

Another high-profile case involved accusations that Juan Carlos withdrew large sums of money using credit cards that were not in his name, but rather registered under two offshore foundations based in Panama and Lichtenstein.

By funneling his money through the foundations, Juan Carlos could have avoided paying taxes on his luxurious lifestyle, which included horse purchases, according to Spanish media reports citing investigators.

However, Galán noted, both investigations related to events that occurred while Juan Carlos was king and could not be prosecuted under the Spanish Constitution. And the back taxes that Juan Carlos made made the case moot.

“You can talk about morality, but that’s the scope of the law,” Galán said, referring to the issue of immunity.

One scandal, however, has yet to be resolved.

A court case filed by Ms Larsen claims the former king spied on her with the help of Spanish intelligence agencies. A British court, where Ms Larsen lives, issued her a restraining order against the former king, but has yet to decide whether the case can proceed, with Juan Carlos also seeking immunity there.

Such claims have left a sour taste in the mouths of some in Spain, especially on the left.

“The impunity enjoyed by Juan Carlos degrades the democratic good faith of Spanish institutions, starting with the judicial system which seems unable to apply the same standards to the powerful as to normal citizens,” said Enrique Santiago, secretary of the Communist Party. Spanish. .

King’s supporters see things differently, of course.

Mr Gabilondo, the news presenter, said it was a shame the former king left Spain so divided over his return given Juan Carlos’ role in uniting the country after the dictatorship.

“The figure of Juan Carlos has become the exact opposite of what it once was,” he said. “For years he was the great factor in our national harmony, now he is the source of discord. And his return will be an even bigger issue for that.

Jose Bautista contributed report.