Spain’s parliament proclaimed Felipe VI the country’s new king Thursday, in a discreet and solemn ceremony that is nonetheless a transcendental milestone for Spain.
It’s hard to downplay the significance for Spain of welcoming the popular and handsome 46 year-old King Felipe. He has no executive power, but wields tremendous moral authority as the head of state and embodiment of the country’s identity.
The new king has a clean slate. And in his proclamation speech he was surprisingly bold in echoing Spanish society’s biggest concerns. In essence, he said it was time to turn a page, and pressed political leaders to fix a broken Spain.
Felipe and the new “consort” Queen Letizia have the advantage of youth and a strong connection with their subjects, but a troubled Spain awaits them. Here are five things to know about the new royals and their duties and responsibilities in Spain.
1. Felipe is Spain's first ‘constitutional’ king.
The proclamation of Felipe as king signifies a change in the monarchy's relationship with the country. A coronation implies hereditary rights, while a proclamation is one bestowed by the people.
The last direct succession was in the 1870s, and the last uncontested succession was over two centuries ago. There were no religious symbols today, unlike in the past.
But as the new king highlighted in his speech, this was Spain's first constitutional succession – an illustration of how far Spain has come since the reign of his father, King Juan Carlos, started 39 years ago under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.
2. He takes charge of a tarnished monarchy...
Felipe's main challenge is reconnecting with the people, with the very future of the crown at stake. The monarchy’s popularity is at its lowest in history, partly because of the public's broadening distrust of institutions, but also over corruption scandals involving Felipe’s sister Cristina – who was not present in any of the ceremonies.
Felipe, an avid sports fan, former sailing team Olympian, and art lover, appeared enthusiastic to make change: “I embody the renewed monarchy for a new time,” he announced. He is military trained, speaks English and French, as well as Spain’s regional languages.
Felipe clearly spoke his mind, in stark contrast to the overly cautious language traditionally used by the crown. Spain's economic crisis “has injured even the dignity of Spaniards,” he said, exhorting legislators to make job creation a priority and to “revitalize institutions” that the population has lost confidence in. “It is possible for political forces to agree,” which requires a “change of attitude.”
He also reached out to the young, underlining the need to protect the environment and to spur innovation and new technologies.
But his impact will largely be inspirational, rather than political. The new king's only official power is from “arbitrating and moderating” the state’s affairs. In essence, the king is above politics and doesn’t get involved in management.
3. ...in a fracturing country.
As the guarantor of Spain’s unity, another of Felipe’s challenges is to mediate between Madrid and independence-minded regions like Catalonia and Basque Country. Both regions have been waging political campaigns to break away from Spain, something that the central government has refused to consider and calls illegal.
Many in Catalonia and the Basque Country hope Felipe will nudge leaders to reform the constitution to make Spain into a federation, in which regions would have near sovereign powers.
Whether he goes that far is uncertain. But in his speech he suggested that leaders need to do more to accommodate each other. “We all fit in this united and diverse Spain,” he said.
4. Letizia, the new queen, is a commoner.
Felipe's key connection to the majority of his subjects is his wife, Letizia, a successful television journalist. She was brought up in a middle class family, married and divorced, paid a mortgage, and rode the subway. In 2004, they married and have since had two daughters.
Letizia is officially a “consort” of the king, without any power under any circumstances. The first in line now is their elder daughter, Princess Leonor, followed by the younger Sofia.
But she is a strong presence, and not cowed by the glamor of royalty. During the official announcement of their engagement, she ordered her husband to “let me finish” when he interrupted her. She goes to the movies, wears jeans, and trendy outfits.
5. The royals are frequent transatlantic flyers.
The new king's first trip abroad is expected to be to neighbors Morocco, France, and Portugal. But the new royal family has strong ties to the Americas.
The king has a master's degree from Georgetown University, and he and his wife are frequent visitors to the US and Latin America. As prince, Felipe attended nearly 70 presidential inaugurations.
In his speech, he specifically reached out to Latin America to work together, although he prioritized relations in the strategic Mediterranean region.