MADRID — Shortly after confiding to his countrymen that he had been unable to sleep at night because of all the young unemployed people in his country, Spanish King Juan Carlos secretly hopped aboard a plane and went on a lavish safari to Botswana, where he shot elephants.
When word leaked out this spring, Spaniards were outraged. Newspapers calculated that such hunting trips cost twice the country’s average annual salary. Tomas Gomez, a Socialist party leader, called on the king to choose between his “public responsibilities or an abdication.” Now, critics are calling on him to slash his budget and reveal how he is spending the money. The backlash against the 74-year-old king is part of a broader soul-searching in Europe about the role and relevance of monarchies as the economic crisis deepens.
While it is the royals’ fairy-tale lives — the palaces, couture and love affairs — that have made many of them such fascinating public figures, that extravagance now seems out of place. Politicians, local media outlets and average citizens are openly questioning why taxpayers should be footing the bill for royals — who consume tens of millions of dollars each year — while much of the rest of the population of the continent suffers amid cuts in civil-service salaries, pensions and health care.
In Belgium, King Albert II found himself in the hot seat this year after his official budget was increased by 3 percent, prompting him to announce that he would cover some of his own expenses for the next two years, saving the country the equivalent of $616,000. Dutch Queen Beatrix, who has faced criticism about maintenance costs for her yacht being borne by her country’s Defense Ministry, said she would pay them herself.
Even Queen Elizabeth II, who celebrated her diamond jubilee in June before a sea of 1 million adoring British citizens, has not been immune from pressure to slash the monarchy’s budget. She froze staff salaries, postponed maintenance work on royal residences and dropped the full-time security protection for Princess Beatrice and Princess Eugenie.
This week, nude photos of Prince Harry partying in Las Vegas brought a flurry of criticism to the royal house, claiming abuse of the 24-hour taxpayer-funded security detail that is assigned to the playboy prince. One Briton tweeted that he has no issue with Prince Harry having fun, but “I do object to having to foot the bill for it.” Local newspaper columnist Rod McPhee wondered, “Was it a small, medium or large sized town of tax payers who paid for Prince Harry’s bar tab in Vegas?”
A beloved monarch
Recent controversy aside, Juan Carlos has long been one of Europe’s most popular royals. It is not unusual to find Spaniards who say they are anti-monarchy but pro-Juan Carlos. Handpicked by the dictator Francisco Franco to be his successor, Juan Carlos instead steered the country toward a parliamentary monarchy after Franco died in 1975.