King Juan Carlos toasts a good year

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IT WAS perhaps an appropriate occasion for Spain's King Juan Carlos to point out that, for his country and family at least, 1992 was far from an annus horribilis.

The monarch's annual Epiphany message to the armed forces was, after all, initiated by Carlos XIII in 1782 to mark the (temporary, as it turned out) recuperation of the island of Menorca from the British. .

There was, however, no obvious hint of gloating in his speech to the troops when Juan Carlos suggested last year had been more of an annus vitalis for his nation, and the exemplary product of a transitus mirabilis from dictatorship to democracy in Spain in around 15 years.

He referred to the successful Olympic Games, the celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the Americas, Expo 92 and Madrid as European cultural capital as events which showed 'the vitality of Spain, its capacity to organise and its image in the world'. But he may just have been thinking how well he and his family had come out of a year that other royals would prefer to forget.

Perhaps he has Spain's media to thank. About the worst criticism he suffered in the country's most popular daily, El Pais, last year was for attending an international gastronomic festival, seen by the daily as selling his image short for the sake of public relations. So shocking to royalists was the paper's editorial that the rival daily, ABC, strongly pro-monarchy, rushed to respond by inserting a late editorial of its own in its last edition of the same evening.

Foreign press reports suggesting Juan Carlos's trips to Switzerland were less for the crisp Alpine air and more to feel the cool fingers of an elegant lady friend run through his hair were only briefly picked up here and quickly dropped on the principle that Spanish men having affairs do not sell papers.

Suggestions of various romances involving his son, the Crown Prince Felipe, and his youngest daughter, Cristina, were implied in the media but hardly pressed. As for the King's tax situation, 1992 was just another year. In the words of an acquaintance, 'He poured himself a large one, filled in the forms and paid up as usual.'

He noted that Spain had gained prestige in the world as a result of its efforts in 1992, culminating with the dispatch of Spanish legionnaires to Bosnia to bolster the United Nations presence. But clearly aware of retrospective public questioning of Maastricht, which was pushed through by the Prime Minister, Felipe Gonzalez, with little or no debate, Juan Carlos was careful not to go overboard in his support for European union.

'Europe is an objective that will inevitably present difficulties,' he said. 'We have to combine our national feelings with the idea of a larger community. But we must not lose our own identity.'