Skip to main content

When Spain's Prince Felipe becomes king in a low-key ceremony on Thursday, he will face an even more daunting task than restoring respect for a monarchy discredited by tawdry scandals. It may fall to him to prevent the country from breaking up.

As Catalonia prepares to hold a referendum on its independence this fall, many Spaniards see the Canadian-educated Felipe as the only figure who could mediate a deal between the central and Catalonian governments that would avoid a full-blown constitutional crisis.

If that seems beyond the office of a "figurehead" head of state, it is in keeping with the role his father King Juan Carlos played in guiding Spain's peaceful transition to democracy four decades ago and in staring down an attempted coup in 1981. It won him the eternal gratitude of his people.

Or at least it did until Juan Carlos got old, and Spain's media less deferential.

Things went downhill fast for Juan Carlos, now 76, when he bagged an elephant on a hunting trip to Botswana in 2012 and, after an accident there, was air-lifted back to Spain at taxpayer expense. That he was travelling with a German mistress rather than Queen Sofia bothered Spaniards much less than the fact that he was living it up while they were grappling with their worst economic crisis in decades.

Revelations of a secret fortune stashed away for Juan Carlos by his father, belying claims the family lost it all when the monarchy was overthrown in 1931, brought rumours of tax evasion. Juan Carlos's daughter, Princess Cristina, dragged the royal name through the mud by allegedly profiting from the misdeeds of her husband, who now faces criminal charges involving money laundering.

While older Spaniards still revere their Bourbon king, younger ones with no personal experience of the country's turbulent political history consider the very idea of the monarchy as anachronistic – if not indecent amid an unemployment rate surpassing 25 per cent. Worse still, Juan Carlos has become a millstone for the central government, which is struggling to quell separatist factions in the Basque regions and Catalonia.

When the king announced on June 2 that he would abdicate the throne in favour of Felipe, 46, many Spaniards suspected he did so at the urging of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. Mr. Rajoy and his People's Party are deeply unpopular in Catalonia and their hard line on secession – Madrid maintains the planned November referendum is illegal – seem only to inflame separatist fervour.

Enter the 6-foot-5 Felipe and his beautiful commoner wife Letizia, both out of central casting. Despite ongoing protests calling for a referendum on the monarchy, the royal couple appear to be playing their cards smartly. They act and live modestly (for royals) and the self-effacing and well-educated Felipe has mastered the art of diplomacy. His approval ratings are double those of his father.

No one doubted the subtext when, in a June 4 speech, Felipe called Spain a "united and diverse" country.

"In difficult times like the ones we are going through, the experience of times past shows us that only by uniting our hard work, putting the common good ahead of special interests and promoting the creativity of each person, do we succeed in advancing toward better scenarios," he said.

Whether Felipe learned much about Canada's own unity battles during his studies at Lakefield College School in Ontario is unknown. (He arrived as a 16-year-old in 1984, during a lull in the Quebec sovereigntist movement.) But he has spoken of his year at Lakefield as one of maturation.

"It was in Canada that I fought my first battle," he told Spain's El Mundo in 1998. "I had to face the distance from my family, from Spain, and from my friends. I had to deal with a different language, climate and customs I did not know … It was a challenge I needed to overcome. I think it was worth it."

It was also while he was at Lakefield that Juan Carlos began coaching Felipe on the art of kingship. In a series of letters revealed in a 2008 book, Juan Carlos counselled his son in far off Canada on how to become a "kind, attentive and helpful" king. "You need to appear natural, but not vulgar; cultivated and aware of problems, but not pedantic or conceited," Juan Carlos wrote.

Juan Carlos also warned that royals needed to "earn their throne every day." The advice turned out to be prophetic for the father. To keep his crown, the son will need to work even harder as a result.