LONDON, UK — As the man who shepherded his country from dictatorship to democracy following the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975, Spain’s King Juan Carlos accumulated a huge wealth of goodwill. Then, last year, with a few gunshots, he blew it.
It was bad enough that the 75-year-old monarch was photographed on an elephant hunt in Botswana. But it also emerged he’d been vacationing with a woman who wasn’t his wife.
The evidence of his apparently decadent lifestyle clashed badly with the grim mood of a population struggling with economic crisis.
Once deferential to their monarch, Spaniards are becoming loudly critical as tolerance toward royal excess erodes in lockstep with tumbling incomes.
“While they’re making sacrifices, they’ve watched the royals living the same way as before,” says Brenda Otero, a journalist who contributes to Spain’s El Pais newspaper.
The royal woes have been compounded by a financial scandal involving the king’s son-in-law, the Duke of Palma, currently on trial for embezzling public funds through a charity he controls.
The Spanish monarchy isn’t alone. Aristocrats from Olso to Brussels are experiencing a sharp downturn in the kind of adulation that once granted them licence to live it up across Europe.
Some have suffered from public scandal. Others have been accused of failing to keep up with social changes on a financially stricken continent enduring some of its worst instability since World War II.
In Spain, mired deep in a recession triggered by the euro crisis and a collapse in the property market, it’s been both. With 25 percent of the workforce on the dole and unemployment among young people climbing as high as 50 percent, people have had enough.
A poll for El Mundo, another Spanish paper, says 41 percent of Spaniards — far more than ever before — say they want to abolish the monarchy. Just 50 percent had a good opinion of the king’s reign, down more than 22 percent from a year ago.
“The last year has been an annus horribilis for the Spanish royal family,” Otero said, using British Queen Elizabeth’s term to describe 1992, a year of royal break-ups — including the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana — that propelled Britain’s royals towards their own nadir.
There have been attempts to mitigate the damage in Madrid and other capitals. Two months after the hunting scandal erupted, the government announced the $11 million royal budget would be cut by $132,000.
Similar belt-tightening could be on the cards in Belgium this month after people criticized claims that Queen Fabiola was trying to use legal loopholes to safeguard some of her wealth against inheritance taxes.
“Nobody should stand above the crisis,” Belgian Justice Minister Annemie Turtelboom said on the news the queen’s $1.9 million annual allowance would be cut by nearly $600,000. “It’s all hands on deck.”
Britain’s royals have also been making public expenditure savings — up to 25 percent, according to officials — although annual costs of about $50 million remain high. However, Queen Elizabeth’s recent celebrations to mark her 50 years on the throne have helped boost once-tumbling ratings.
News of the Duchess of Cambridge’s pregnancy didn’t do the British royal family’s popularity any harm either. Nor did Prince Harry’s recent naked escapades in Las Vegas. The Queen’s “skydiving” performance at the London Olympics seems to have also further burnished their image.
But none of that will silence a significant proportion of the British population calling for an end to the monarchy. Polls last November showed that although the number of people favoring a republic has fallen since 2005’s highs of 22 percent, they’re beginning to climb again at 16 percent.
In wealthier corners where the euro crisis barely registers, other issues have beset the nobility.
In Monaco, the ruling Grimaldi family’s image suffered when Prince Albert’s bride, South African swimmer Charlene Wittstock, was reported to have had cold feet ahead of their 2011 wedding. Some spoke of the “curse of the Grimaldis” — a supposed run of bad luck that included the death of Grace Kelly, wife of Prince Rainier, in a car crash in 1982.
The tiny principality of Liechtenstein, Europe’s last absolute monarchy, briefly saw trouble last year when Crown Prince Alois faced a referendum over his political powers after he threatened to use his veto to block moves to decriminalize abortion. Despite a vigorous pro-democracy campaign, however, 76 percent voted in the prince’s favor.
Norway’s royal family has the bracingly divisive figure of Princess Mette-Marit to thank for most its recent controversies. A divorcee and single mother when she married heir to the throne Prince Haakon in 2001, Mette-Marit was seen by some as an unsuitable bride for the future monarch.
She made headlines last December by using her diplomatic passport to fly to India to look after newborn surrogate twins on behalf of a Norwegian gay couple struggling to get a visa. The incident stirred outrage from some in Norway, where surrogacy is illegal, but won praise from others.
When it comes to generating tittle-tattle, however, few royal households can challenge the supremacy of Sweden’s ruling Bernadotte family.
In 2010, there were revelations that King Carl Gustav, 64, had a wild past that included sex parties and a year-long affair with a pop singer. They were followed by claims, swiftly denied, that Queen Silvia’s father had links to the Nazis and profited from a factory taken from a Jewish businessman.
A survey last year showed such scandals had left public trust in the Swedish royals at an all-time low. Among those polled, 20 percent believed it was time for Sweden to become a republic, up 11 percent since 1976, the year Carl Gustav and Silvia married.
Lars Hovbakke Sorensen, a social historian and expert in European royalty, said most royals’ troubles can be blamed on their failure to strike a delicate balance between modernization and retention of a “special” royal quality that engenders public deference.
While hidebound British and Spanish royals have struggled to keep pace with the modern world, the Swedish and Norwegian monarchies have gone too far, losing respect by becoming too ordinary and accessible, he argues.
The Danish royal family, in contrast, has positioned itself as Europe’s most popular by updating itself at a steadier pace while retaining a certain mystique, Sorensen adds. Crucially, it’s the continent’s cheapest monarchy and has been relatively scandal-free.
“Queen Margrethe used to be quite reserved at the beginning of her reign,” Sorensen said, “but slowly, over the years, she has opened up to journalists.” Her son Frederik, who made international headlines by marrying Australian marketing consultant Mary Donaldson in 2003, is even more down to earth.
“Frederik has allowed the press to come close to his family,” Sorensen said. “His oldest son, who’s in line to become king, is even being educated in a public school instead of the private schools previously used by royalty. It’s steps like these that have made them so popular.”
Although European austerity shows no sign of abating in the near future, some hope new generations of royals will regain the trust and respect of their nominal subjects by drawing a line under their parents’ excesses.
Sweden’s Princess Victoria is still well-liked despite her eyebrow-raising marriage to her personal trainer, Daniel Westling, and relocation to New York.
And in Spain, salvation could come in the unlikely figure of Prince Felipe, the heir to the throne who was once criticized for being too aloof and for marrying former TV presenter Letizia Ortiz, says journalist Otero. In light of his family’s troubles, he’s now seen as a breath of fresh air.
“Compared to the other guys, people realize that Felipe and Letizia will do a good job,” Otero says. “It’s quite surprising, since Felipe hasn’t been as popular as his dad until now. That might change.”