A king's ransom

This week, Spain's King emeritus, Juan Carlos, paid almost €680,000 in back taxes - a hefty settlement that in no way implies that he's guilty of the more serious fraud charges pending against him. It does, however, make one wonder why the once-beloved monarch owed quite so much, and for how long he hadn't been paying any or the appropriate amount of taxes.

Juan Carlos's move in August to the United Arab Emirates certainly achieved what one imagines was its true (rather than its stated) purpose: to enable him to retreat from speculation concerning his intricate finances and a former affair with Danish businesswoman Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. But the announcement of this week's tax settlement has returned Juan Carlos to the forefront of attention in Spain, just before he's apparently due home for Christmas. If he does come back for the muted festivities, King Felipe's father might find public interest in his affairs - both fiscal and amatory - just as keen as it was when he fled to Abu Dhabi in August.

Last month, Juan Carlos entered a "Rich List" of the world's ten wealthiest royals, compiled by the online investment magazine Buy Shares. The monarch, widely credited with returning Spain to democracy in the 1970s, secured last place, with an estimated fortune of $2.3 billion (€1.9 billion) - not peanuts, for sure, but an almost embarrassing amount compared to the $30 billion (€25 billion) amassed by the King of Thailand, the planet's richest monarch.

This estimation of his personal fortune comes at a sensitive time for the former head of state, as serious questions remain over the legitimacy with which some of it was accrued. Ongoing investigations concern a €100 million "gift" Carlos received from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in 2008 - €65 million of which he transferred to Sayn-Wittgenstein in 2012 - and the source of sums held in Swiss bank accounts.

But according to an anachronistic section of the 1978 Spanish Constitution, Juan Carlos possessed "inviolability" during his reign and can't be prosecuted for anything that occurred before his abdication in 2014. If this venerable document is ever tweaked, as the Socialists and Podemos rightly want it to be, this should be one of the first sections to go.

The wider context of Juan Carlos's troubles is a debate about the future of the Spanish royal family. Polls indicate that Spaniards are roughly split down the middle as to whether the country should become a Republic, a spread that's more 80-20 among the political class, with only radical and separatist groups openly against the monarchy. Still, while they're around, at least the occupants of the House of Bourbon's Madrid branch are more colourful and, in a way, more human than their boring counterparts in Windsor. That, perhaps, is about the best thing that can be said about them.