As Spain’s new democracy matured over the years and Spain transformed itself from a European economic laggard into the continent’s fourth largest economy, the king played a largely figurehead role, traveling the globe as an ambassador for the country.
He was also a stabilizing force in a country with restive, independence-minded regions like Catalonia and the northern Basque region.
“He has been a tireless defender of our interests,” Rajoy said.
Juan Carlos melded the trappings of royalty with down-to-earth, regular-guy charm. The king is an avid sports fan and after the Madrid terror bombings of March 11, 2004, showed he could grieve like anyone else.
At an emotional state funeral for the 191 people killed in the train bombings by Islamic militants, Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia slowly went row-by-row through Madrid’s Almudena Cathedral, clasping the hands of sobbing mourners or kissing them on the cheek.
But his patient work nearly came undone during the financial crisis, with people questioning after the elephant-hunting trip whether a hereditary monarchy was needed and whether it was worth the cost because of deep austerity measures imposed on Spaniards to prevent the country from financial collapse.
The World Wildlife Fund’s branch in Spain ousted Juan Carlos as its honorary president — a title he’d held since 1968 — after deciding the hunt was incompatible with its goal of conserving endangered species. Juan Carlos took the unprecedented step of apologizing to Spaniards for his actions.
He recently said that he wanted to be remembered as “the king who has united all Spaniards.”
Juan Carlos goes down a path increasingly traveled by European royalty.
Last year Belgium’s King Albert handed over the throne of his fractious kingdom to his son, Crown Prince Philippe. Two months earlier, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands stepped down after a 33-year reign in favor of her eldest son, who was appointed King Willem-Alexander.
It was a break with tradition, but not as big as the decision early last year by Pope Benedict XVI to resign, a move that stunned Catholics around the world.
The two royal successions in Belgium and the Netherlands have been smooth and successful.