Relying on Basque nationalists, but still in power: Where next for Spain’s ‘weak’ government?

Article by Caroline Gray, Lecturer in Politics and Spanish, originally published on the LSE EUROPP blog on 25th July. For the original article, please visit:

Spain was thrown into uncharted waters last year when conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy formed the weakest minority government since Spain transitioned to democracy. Yet, despite predictions at the time that the Popular Party (PP) government would not last, the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) has spared it from an early death. With their five seats in the Spanish parliament, the Basque nationalists’ crucial decision to support the PP’s 2017 budget – backed also by the centre-right Ciudadanos – transformed the outlook. In some ways, it’s back to business as usual then. Except what’s ‘usual’ in Spanish politics has fundamentally changed, and clinging onto power by striking traditional bilateral deals with the Basques does not resolve the many issues now requiring broader consensus and compromise.

Minority governments are nothing new for Spain – both the traditional conservative and socialist parties have frequently fallen short of an absolute majority in Spain’s 350-seat parliament and relied on regionally-based parties to make up the numbers. And yet on this occasion, the record low number of seats secured by the winning party, combined with the lack of scope for deals with Catalan nationalist parties due to their pro-independence agenda, put the Basque nationalists in the position of kingmaker. With the PP’s 137 seats, combined with 32 from Ciudadanos, the government just managed to reach the 176-seat majority needed to approve the 2017 budget in May thanks to the PNV’s 5 votes plus one each from two regional parties based in the Canary Islands. The PNV has also saved the government’s skin by supporting other bills too, such as Spain’s new stowage law.

Nothing the PNV does is for free, so its support has come with hefty price tags. The tradeoffs agreed so far include, for example, funds and a clear timeline to progress long-awaited Basque routes for Spain’s high speed train network. Arguably the most significant deal made has been in relation to the Basque economic agreement (concierto económico), which governs fiscal and financial relations between the region and Madrid, and provides the fundamental basis for Basque regional autonomy. Since 2007, the PNV had been in disagreement with successive Spanish governments over key aspects of the economic agreement. And yet all the relevant disputes have now been resolved, largely in favour of the Basque position.

For historical reasons, the Basque Country is one of only two Spanish regions that have bilateral economic agreements with Madrid (the other being Navarre), granting it far more substantial revenue-raising powers than other regions in Spain. Under the arrangement, the Basque authorities collect almost all taxes in the Basque region. They keep most of these to pay for devolved policy competences and pay a much smaller annual ‘quota’ (cupo) to the Spanish government to contribute to the few remaining centralised competences.

The quota is calculated according to five-yearly quota laws, under a complex (and often disputed) methodology agreed upon bilaterally between the Basque and Spanish authorities, which takes into account factors such as the valuation of devolved competences. For the past decade, Spanish-Basque fiscal and financial relations had been beset by disagreements over the figures. The details of the new quota law for 2017-21, fleshed out in the draft legislation approved by both the Basque and Spanish sides on 19 July following the political collaboration over the budget in May, show that it is not just the numbers that have now been agreed. Further revenue-raising powers are also being devolved to the Basques in areas where there is still scope to do so.

The deal demonstrates the PNV’s longstanding politically savvy pragmatism, which is facilitated by the scope for bilateral deals that the Basque economic agreement offers. Since former Basque regional president Juan José Ibarretxe’s attempt to push through a self-determination plan for the Basque Country a decade ago somewhat backfired, the PNV has returned to a slower, more incremental pathway towards the sovereignty it seeks for the Basque Country under the regional premiership of Inigo Urkullu and the party leadership of Andoni Ortuzar (in the PNV, the regional president and party leader are two distinct roles). In the meantime, it is not hesitating to use the party’s leverage in the new more fragmented parliamentary reality of Madrid to ensure more practical Basque demands are met.

Of course, to be seen to be upholding the government of the PP – which is highly unpopular in the Basque Country – is not without potential political costs for the PNV. Its left-wing opponents have seized on this, accusing it of keeping a corrupt right-wing party in power. Certainly, Ortuzar was not about to have his photo snapped shaking hands with Rajoy in the same style as the famous Arzalluz-Aznar photo from two decades ago. Then, Basque PNV party leader Xabier Arzalluz struck a deal with Spanish PP Prime Minister José María Aznar which has remained firmly etched in Basque and Spanish political memory and bears close parallels to the new PP-PNV deal reached this year.

In Catalonia, such historical relationships between the once leading nationalist party Convergència and the Spanish PP ultimately proved too cosy for Catalan voters’ liking, pushing many to switch to other left-wing pro-independence alternatives. This might serve as a warning to the PNV, which is struggling to appeal to younger generations. But it perhaps has the advantage of being more practised in shifting alliances as needed than Convergència was – whereas the latter at times ended up reliant upon PP support in the Catalan parliament too, the PNV’s preferred ally in the Basque parliament has almost always been, and continues to be, the Basque Socialists. And securing extra money for the Basque Country inevitably helps to sweeten the bitter pill of propping up the PP in Madrid in return for the moment, at a time when there is no clear left-wing majority alternative on offer.

For the PP’s part, the deal is a much harder sell to its Spanish electorate. Spanish treasury minister Cristóbal Montoro made a statement to the effect that only the financial crisis had prevented the PP from reaching such a deal with the Basques before, but in reality it was also because it was so politically unpalatable. A reform of the common financing system for the rest of Spain’s regions has been repeatedly postponed in recent years as cash-strapped regional governments clamour for more funding, and the refusal of a better financial deal for Catalonia is one of the many factors that have contributed to the burgeoning of pro-independence sentiment in that region. In this climate, giving back money to the Basques – who are already perceived to have a better deal than other regions – was not on the cards until the PP became so desperate for allies in parliament.

Thus, the PP may have secured its survival for now via a traditional ‘mutual backscratching’ arrangement with the Basque nationalists, but the real test of its strength or weakness in government will be whether it can make any headway toward addressing the serious issues on the agenda that require more complex cross-party and inter-regional negotiations and compromise. In that regard, the prognosis remains bleak.

Working in Politics and International Relations at Aston University

Our department at Aston University is thrilled to be recruiting up to two posts (at Lecturer, Senior Lecturer or Reader level), and this blog is intended to provide a bit of informal advice to prospective applicants, especially for the lecturership positions (though it may be useful background for those interested in other levels), about what we do, who we are, and the sort of things we will be looking for.  There is then a short interview with Parveen Akhtar, who joined the department as Lecturer in Politics and International Relations last year.


First – a bit about our team.  We are a medium-sized department, with 20.6 current staff (20 are full-time, one is part-time, and one splits her time between the Spanish Department and our own), excluding one colleague who heads our School, and another who is currently on sabbatical at the Foreign Office.  Of those 22 staff, twelve are men, ten are women, and we are a diverse group in terms of our national backgrounds (with nationals of ten different countries!).  We would welcome greater ethnic diversity in our department.  Several colleagues have young families, and all live either in Birmingham or within a sensible commuting distance.  We encourage a diverse workforce including representation of staff with disabilities and will provide support and reasonable adjustments as needed.  Aston is a ‘two ticks’ employer, which means that it has committed to offering an interview to all disabled applicants who meet the essential criteria for a vacancy.  Four news colleagues in the 2016/17 year, and six joined us for the 2017/18 year – this reflects the popularity of our department with students, and the university’s commitment to expanding our discipline.


Second – a bit about our students.  Our student body is very diverse (as is the West Midlands region, in which we are based): at the undergraduate level, we attract a good range of students, both on our Single Honours course (Politics and International Relations) and in our joint honours courses (such as Politics and Economics, International Relations and Business, and International Relations and Modern Languages).  These students are overwhelmingly from the state sector, and have scored highly in their A-levels.  We strongly encourage them to undertake a work or study placement, either in the UK or abroad, in their penultimate year, and find this makes a real difference to their employability, which is very important to us at Aston.  At postgraduate level, we have a good mix of students, and many come from continental Europe, often as part of our joint and double degrees with Rennes, Lille, and Bamberg (with a new programme Metropolitan University in Prague coming on stream soon).


Third – a bit about working here.  We are all active researchers, but our areas of specialism vary widely, as you will see from our staff profiles.  Our standards are high – at the last REF, we entered under the “umbrella” of the Aston Centre for Europe in the Area Studies section, and were ranked the highest in this field outside London.  We have recently become a Jean-Monnet Centre of Excellence.  But it is important to remember that ACE, and our department, are “ecumenical”, and that we are not exclusively interested in European Studies.  For instance, our students often tell us they would like to learn more about the Politics of the Middle East, or the Politics of China or Latin America; the truth is we are open to applications from any interesting sub-field of Politics and International Relations.  We have recently re-established a departmental seminar where a colleague presents “work in progress” and discusses it in a supportive environment.  We are encouraged to bid for external funding from a variety of sources (and have had success from sources like the European Commission, Leverhulme, the German Academic Exchange Service and the ESRC in recent years), and comment on each other’s bids to give them the best chance of success.


We are also passionate teachers – staff regularly observe each other’s teaching, several colleagues have won prizes in this area, and we often compare notes on ways of teaching and keeping students engaged (for instance, students may do “simulations”, policy reports, role plays, group assignments and produce films as part of their courses).  We take our MA students on an annual study visit to Brussels, and have also had regular study visits to London.  There is no “typical” teaching load, but a colleague might expect to teach courses for around six hours per week during team time, to a mixture of larger and smaller groups, and in addition offer four hours a week of office hours, as well as time for dissertation supervision and meeting with personal tutees.  Every member of staff is entitled to a “research day” each week, including during term time, when they would not be expected to teach or be at meetings.


We are all strong believers in keeping our discipline relevant to everyday life.  So we hold regular lunchtime seminars for students and staff on current affairs, we recently held an event with the Parliamentary Outreach Service on Parliament and BAME communities and another with local young people on their views on the EU referendum, and our team often write blogs aimed at an audience beyond academia.  We also regularly engage with policy-makers, holding events in London and Brussels where we can discuss our ongoing research with practitioners, and feed into and shape policy discussions.  For us, “impact” is about a lot more than ticking a box for external evaluation of universities!


If you are interested in applying (especially for the lecturership positions), here are some things to consider:


  • The key document in shortlisting will be your answers to the questions online application form (which will be scored according to whether you have met our criteria), as well as your CV. Make sure you look carefully at our person specification before applying.
  • We are likely to read well over 150 applications, and for that reason we need candidates to have a completed Ph.D., and evidence of “successful research publication”. This will probably involve having published, or at least advanced plans for, a book, and also some articles in peer reviewed journals, and far more weight will be given to publications which are published or accepted for publication than those which have not yet been accepted.  Expectations clearly depend on how long you have been in the profession, and career breaks would be taken into account.
  • Remember that we all regard our teaching as really important, as well as our research, and think about how you would ensure Aston students are really engaged in and excited about what they are learning.
  • When thinking about income generation, by all means include good ideas for research grants (including those with collaborators outside Aston), but also think about whether there might be any new incomes streams you could develop for the department or ACE.
  • We will involve the all staff and several students in recruitment, as shortlisted applicants will give a presentation to the whole department in the morning (including student representatives), and will then have an interview in the afternoon. In both these settings, you would want to show how you can get your message across clearly and succinctly, how you would engage students and colleagues, and how you would see yourself fitting in with our department (and possibly the Aston Centre for Europe). Normally the first question will be about why you want to work at Aston, so you’d want to give this some serious thought in advance.  Since we pride ourselves on our practical, relevant research you can expect to be asked about this.


If you have any questions, please drop me a line at, and we can catch up on the telephone or Skype if necessary afterwards.


Interview with Parveen Akhtar, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations


Why did you decide to apply to work at Aston?


There were a number of reasons why I decided to apply to work at Aston.  Birmingham is a super-diverse and rapidly changing city, and, as such, provides a fascinating backdrop to the kinds of research issues I work on around political inclusion and representation.  When I applied to Aston in 2016, there were 7 vacancies across the School and 4 of those were dedicated to Politics and International Relations.  This pointed to a genuine commitment to the Social Sciences and, of course, it’s always exciting to join and contribute to an institution when it is developing and expanding.   There is a real energy and buzz in the atmosphere and this comes across when you visit the campus.


How have you found the first year?


It’s really flown by!  The students are so fantastic and really bring a diverse set of experiences and viewpoints to the classroom.  In a year that has been politically interesting (!) with the Brexit vote and the US Presidential election, classroom discussions and debate have been super energised.

Outside of the classroom – memorable moments include the PIR Christmas dinner and Karaoke night which was huge fun and a useful reminder of why I should stick to the day job!


Is it a department where people feel part of a team, or do they tend to get on and do their own thing?


The team in PIR is incredibly supportive and welcoming.  There is some fantastic research going on and the lunchtime seminars are a great way of getting to know what colleagues are up to and also to get some feedback on whatever research paper or project you are working on.

New colleagues get to present their research at the School Seminar and since doing this I have started two new collaborations with colleagues here.  There is a space to get together for lunch if you want a screen-free sandwich.  Overall, there is real dynamism within the group and also opportunities to socialise together outside of work.



What would be your advice to anyone thinking about applying for one of these roles, and do you have any tips on the process?


PIR at Aston is a great place to work if you are looking for a friendly and dynamic research and teaching environment.  There is always a lot going on in Birmingham – from the Literature Festival to the German markets – there is something for everyone.  Come along and visit the campus to get a sense of the diversity and energy at Aston; speak to students, sit in on the guest lectures and talks and Aston will work its magic on you!