Can Europe Make It?

Five Star Movement: saviours of democracy?

Although thriving on the anti-establishment fervour across Italy and Europe, the prospect of a M5S government in Italy could be an unexpected impulse for democracy in the EU.

Enea Desideri
15 December 2016
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Five Star Movement leader, Beppe Grillo. Demotix/eidon photographers. Some rights reserved.

First it was Brexit, then Trump, now Italy. The winds of change blowing around the world, fuelled by people’s discomfort with the status quo, have claimed yet another illustrious victim. Matteo Renzi, the young Italian (ex-)Prime Minister once seemingly unstoppable, has finally fallen.

His resignation, in the absence of a strong government or a clear electoral law to hold new elections under, leaves the boot-shaped country in a tricky situation. And yet, for many of Renzi’s opponents, the present times offer an occasion not to be missed.

With the polls placing it head to head with Renzi’s PD, the Five Star Movement (M5S) has emerged as the real winner from the failed attempt to reform the Italian constitution, which it fiercely opposed. On the wings of this fresh triumph, its chances of gaining power have never looked so concrete. Its unexpectedly strong performance in the 2013 elections was already an unprecedented break with the past in the history of the Italian Republic; the prospects are nowadays even more promising for this curious political animal.

Born out of the initiative of the comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo, this movement/party has been a reality of Italian politics for quite some time already, and in light of recent developments is now increasingly catching attention abroad too. A Five Star Movement led government is indeed a scenario which worries many in Italy and Europe.

For an EU that struggles to cope with the aftereffects of the Brexit vote and lost as it is in the twists and turns of its economic and immigration crises, a party perceived as openly hostile in charge of one of Europe’s most economically important countries and one of the Founding Six would represent a sea change in modern European history.

Interestingly, far from being limited to the European establishment, a certain scepticism towards the Movement is also widespread among many on the Left who, while staunch critics of the current EU, are not ready to embrace the M5S mission. The latter’s formal proximity to UKIP in the European Parliament in particular, creates the widespread impression that a Five Star government would represent yet another breakthrough for extremist eurosceptic parties in Europe. And yet this perception is rather superficial and largely misconceived. It relies, I believe, on a misunderstanding of what the Movement nowadays stands for.

Once its positions are analysed beyond the easy labels imposed by the current regime of a ‘politics of fear’, the experience of this strange political force stands as an interesting case which, far from being easily dismissed as a eurosceptic party with xenophobic views, comes much closer to those forces on the left-end of the political spectrum such as Syriza or Podemos which, while being populist in their appeal to the people against a corrupt establishment, do not hold a closed and exclusionary conception of the people and avoid nationalistic or xenophobic undertones.

These forces adopt a critical rather than sceptical stance towards the EU and do not see a roll-back of sovereignty as their ultimate goal; the focus being rather on a reversal of austerity economic policies and on the necessity for greater democracy and solidarity in Europe.

Academic studies confirm this ideological proximity, stressing how its voting behaviours in the European Parliament position the Five Stars much closer to the Left than the Right. This might appear unusual given the distrust that shines through Beppe Grillo’s discourse towards what is public and which rests uneasily with the traditional stances of the Left.

Nevertheless, one cannot but notice how, beyond mere rhetoric, many similar proposals link the M5S to the Left. One example is the call for a basic citizenship income, one of the Movement’s pivotal battles.

Furthermore, while the M5S electorate has certainly moved from a traditional electoral base made of left-wing voters to include more varied support, a significant part of its parliamentary class still identifies programmatically with concerns inspired by new politics and the libertarian Left.

In this light, while a certain level of scepticism towards the Movement is understandable on the part of the Left, after the hopes and the subsequent disillusion linked to Syriza’s victory in Greece, the Movement’s success might represent hope for a change in Europe among nominally left-wing people.

Which of course does not imply that the European Left should blindly embrace the M5S moralising mission. There is a noticeable gap between the Movement’s leadership and its politically active members. Such a feature creates unpredictability in relation to how it may operate once it gets into power. An unpredictability which is reinforced by the intellectual standing – or lack thereof – of the Movement.

As pointed out by Tommaso Segantini, much of the distrust towards the M5S finds its roots in the latter’s ‘absence of a guiding ideology or worldview’ and in its failure to elaborate a coherent critique of the current economic system in particular. While the Movement’s self-positioning on the political spectrum as ‘neither right-wing nor left-wing’ is not an isolated case – Podemos initially adopted a similar approach only to overcome it more recently – the M5S is peculiar in its being informed by a genuine lack of ideological self-understanding.

This marks a fundamental distinction between Grillo’s party and other European forces on the Left otherwise potentially close to its positions. It is this very lack of a fully developed ideological self-consciousness which represents possibly the most interesting characteristic of the Movement and marks its main strength and weakness.

As an unpredictable force extremely difficult for the establishment to understand and counterbalance, the Movement’s disruptive potential is higher than that of more traditional Left forces. At the same time, the lack of internal coherence and of a fully developed international dimension sets a lot of questions on the potential for change of a Five Star government in Europe.

While it has certainly had a positive impact on Italian politics as an opposition force – for instance bringing attention to the necessity of cutting its absurd expenses – doubts remain on its ability to govern. The substantial risk very much exists of a weak government, worn out by divisions between different factions and internecine fighting among its internal currents – an antipasto of which we have been given in the municipality of Rome, where 5MS Mayor Virginia Raggi was for long time in the impossibility of assigning some key posts in the municipal council because of internal dissent

On the other hand, the Movement has also proven much more resilient to challenges than its detractors would have expected, and might once again surprise everyone by positively reacting to the test of government. While the experience of power could disintegrate Grillo’s creature, it also has the potential of forcing the Movement to take a clearer stance on many issues that have so far been overlooked.

This is particularly the case when it comes to its international standing. While the Movement has so far failed to develop a clear set of alliances in Europe – at least beyond the one of mere convenience with UKIP within the European Parliament – the burdens of government would force it to be much more explicit as to its foreign policy preferences.

This would be an extremely interesting development with the potential of revealing the proximity of the M5S to other left-wing eurocritical, as opposed to Eurosceptic, parties in Europe. Prospects which are even more concrete once one considers that the EFDD, the transnational group to which the M5S belongs in the European Parliament, will likely be forced to dissolve once the UK, and thus UKIP, leaves the EU.

This creates the possibility of a scenario where an influential eurocritical left-wing Mediterranean bloc could emerge in its place, making up a force difficult to ignore and representing a potential challenge to the neo-liberal dogma dictating the EU’s agenda. Of course, being that uncertainty is the characteristic of our times, any prediction needs necessarily be highly speculative in kind. However, dismissing a priori the potential contribution of a M5S government in making Europe more democratic would certainly be a mistake.

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