Can Europe Make It?

Five Star Movement’s natural ally in Strasbourg is Podemos

Beppe Grillo doesn’t suffer fools gladly – why did he ally with UKIP then?

Alessio Colonnelli
4 December 2014
Grillo2[1].png

Flickr/Tarantino Vincenzo. Some rights reserved.

Iglesias is a Spanish surname. The vast majority of Italians know that. It invariably brings to mind Julio Iglesias, the famous singer; his cheesy music sold tens of millions of records across the world in the 70s and 80s. A refrain of his that’s gone down in Italian pop music history went like this: Pensami, tanto tanto intensamente... (Think of me so very intensely...)

Forty and more years on and things haven’t changed: Iglesias still goes hand in hand with the name Julio in the Italian collective mind. It’s a real shame. Iglesias should remind everybody of Pablo instead, the leader of Podemos, the brand-new Spanish political movement. Let’s see why. It has something to do with Beppe Grillo, the leader of Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S).

May 2014, European parliament elections in Italy. M5S wins 17 MEP seats in Strasbourg (Podemos in Spain wins five EU seats). But while the natural choice for the Italian movement – its members don’t like the term ‘party’, they are not an old-fashioned representative body, they say – is to stand alone in Rome’s parliament, in Strasbourg it’s advisable, but not compulsory, to join a so-called family of parties. M5S is also persuaded it would be sensible to do so – mainly to gain access to lucrative EU funds.

The blog’s options

At this point, Beppe Grillo puts forward a choice of three European party affiliations, to be disentangled via an online voting session: sympathizers go for UK Independence Party (Ukip). The other possibilities were to go it alone or join the European group set up by Britain’s Conservatives. No other options offered. Hmm.  

The upshot – linking up with Ukip – strikes you as having one and only aim: to target the EU and its bureaucrats who have blindly and greedily imposed the euro and austerity measures on everyone. In other words targeting the Continent’s neoliberal establishment.

But not much else – this is when it all starts to sound weird. Why offer Ukip as an option when Podemos is more fittingly in line with the history and background behind M5S and the whole common participatory run-up to its founding?

Primary inconsistencies

For a start, upright, hard-nosed neoliberalism and matching infallible financial nous (Ukip) simply clashes with the idea of a basic income (M5S). Two stances, takes and visions that are incompatible by definition.

Two philosophies then, those of M5S and Ukip, that are worlds apart – although, strictly speaking not entirely divergent, at least financially. And yet, pure mathematics doesn’t play into all this at all. Theirs, M5S’ and Ukip’s, is a call to the heart rather than the mind, a realm where actual numbers and proper statistics are peripheral. From their home countries the two parties bring to the same EU table very divergent attitudes. It doesn’t bode well. How easily are they going to agree on much-needed measures to curb EU diktats? The foreseeable bickering – these politicians are no meek souls – will be to the detriment of Ukip’s own efforts as well M5S’.

The progressiveness of the five stars

Each of the five stars of Grillo’s ‘party’ stands for a cardinal credo; put simply, they are a manifesto. Let’s see what they mean. They all sound pretty progressive – the themes lie at the heart of the movement’s political action: water, environment, transport, development and energy. M5S is pro-renewable energy and against garbage incinerators. Ukip is pro-nuclear and pro-fracking.

As a movement why would you want to tackle each one of those five areas and make that action part of your manifesto? Maybe because successive governments since the end of WWII haven’t done a decent enough job in promoting or protecting them, the movement seems to imply. Embezzlement of public money, misuse of public office and widespread corruption didn’t help either. So, the logic goes, a different approach is needed. Other means are required to curtail excessive profit for some by using natural resources that belong to everybody – a seemingly naïve vision that would struggle to fit in any hard-headed, resolutely pro-business Ukip agenda.

Even transport should be more affordable: it physically and literally promotes social mobility, the kind of upward mobility that the expensive euro and austerity measures alike have stifled. In a nutshell that’s what the M5S seems to be about. Ukip would in theory argue everybody has a duty to contribute to the running of public transport on equal measure – why should some get away with paying less than others? We all pay tax, after all. We should all be treated equally. No favouritisms  allowed. More divergent views – both logical, yet disagreeing with one another. It’s the histories behind each of the two parties that are different: they come to the surface yelling, they crop up at each turn in an argumentative mood.

Unnatural choices

So, how can a movement endorsing something as universally human as the basic income for everyone feel satisfied with just those European party-family options? Two out of three were pointing to conservative, draconian, neoliberal policies, while the remaining one was pointing to a stand-alone, going-nowhere lofty outlook.

Perhaps the M5S leadership wants bits – i.e. votes – from all sides of the political spectrum. That might be an answer. And that’s fine, it’s fully legit. But that also leads to a scenario of possibilities that can dangerously fail to engage with an enraged electorate that is politically very active and very clued-up. There’s no messing about with it.

Spicing up the national discourse

Many among such an electorate read Il Fatto Quotidiano – perhaps the most interesting novelty in the Italian media landscape –, a fiercely independent quality newspaper that really strives to produce original and investigative journalism of the highest standard. And it does deliver: just think of Marco Travaglio’s literal deluge of articles about Italy’s corrupt establishment. These must have had an impact on the Italian readership overall. Travaglio also often appears on television speaking his mind in a fair but firm way (a bit like Pablo Iglesias, actually) – he knows the facts he’s worked hard researching them.

Travaglio’s work (and that of his colleagues), carefully and meticulously balancing above and beyond any logic of right or left, has brought about change. Day in and day out, a drop here another one there. Not the ideological arm of M5S by any means, although paper and movement came about around the same time. Surely a coincidence; or maybe not. Whatever the case, Italy was ready for – and badly needed – both.

Il Fatto Quotidiano’s journalists have nonetheless helped shape a different public discourse in Italy, one that easily and naturally feeds into Grillo’s campaigns, but also that goes beyond online participation and rallies, which also serve a purpose, of course – public space is everything, there’s no denying it. And if a decent newspaper in a barren landscape can give you a hand, that’s always welcome. Never dismiss old media if it’s quality.

Ukip’s influence

Ukip has managed to enthuse dissatisfied Conservative MPs, for whom the party wasn’t at some point conservative enough. It’s a well-known phenomenon in the UK; perhaps not so much back in Italy. Ukip’s focus on immigration has hijacked Britain’s national discourse to such an extent, that even Labour’s Rachel Reeves, the shadow secretary of state for work and pensions, has recently managed to make a claim against EU work migration.

As The Observer journalist Nick Cohen has recently pointed out, “[David] Cameron, who once presented himself as a moderate, instead conceded acres of ground to the extremists, no more so than on the immigration question. […] You no longer hear Cameron insist that most immigrants are good and hardworking people. […] Not that Ed Miliband is any better. […] In this year’s European elections, he preferred to ignore a radical rightwing party, which was heading for victory, and emptied his revolver into the corpse that was once Nick Clegg.”

Maybe such extraordinary veering to the right is a legitimate one. Democracy also needs rightwing rhetoric to function. Of course. Still, at the same time, both M5S and Podemos actually make a massive point in being neither right nor left – their rationale and rhetoric go beyond the traditional political paradigm, whereby parties have historically represented citizens in parliament, mediating between them and Power. M5S and Podemos both want thinner parliamentary representation and more direct democracy. They are totally in unison with this. In their view citizens can actively work towards drafting bills and making laws, it shouldn’t be the parliament’s prerogative only. Utopian? That’s for every single one of us to decide. Ukip on the other hand seems to be more in line with representative democracy as such, it’s not bothered about non-representative – i.e. direct – participation, or at least that’s the impression it gives. 

Alliances can be diverse; nothing wrong with it. Different views are healthy – and vital for debating. But political partnerships on a big international, parliamentary scale need to be meaningful: Europe needs to change. It’s serious. A possible British in/out referendum on the EU is looming – theoretically speaking, it could be catastrophic if Britain were to leave. The situation in Europe is exceptionally delicate. Wrong alliances can lead to nowhere and prove to be a waste of time, resources and potential.

Freshness and the lack thereof

So maybe there’s another answer to the M5S-Ukip conundrum. Beppe Grillo’s age, for instance. He’s in his late sixties. That somehow doesn’t add up with the whole M5S image, which is very fresh – a blessing. As fresh as Íñigo Errejón’s face, a Podemos jefe, who, aged 31, still looks like a teenager (good for him). Pablo Iglesias, the face and voice of Podemos, is just a few years older.

The Italian movement’s MPs are all relatively young as well. Its senators in Rome (and you have to be old to be one, as we all know) are mostly still in their forties – that’s young. Just like Podemos’ politicians and the Occupy-like Spanish youth, the latter having taken to the squares for four years running (15-M).

Young people in Spain physically occupied public spaces in a way and on a scale that’s never quite occurred in Italy: it’s as if the international Occupy movement was never heard there. Beppe Grillo’s oceanic rallies still had something media-like and staged about them, something lacking spontaneity or the freshness of the crossed-legged indignados (Podemos has harnessed their force brilliantly).

Landscapes

A charismatic, clued-up, media-savvy wiz with mad hair (Grillo) is fun to watch as well as being informative. Spanish squares offered nothing like it; rather sheer desperation and outrage instead. A flesh and blood pueblo talking to the world in all directions that was not a looking-on audience waiting to hear a story, however thought-provoking.

So, quite different landscapes. Despite Spain and Italy sharing so much. Both southern countries which struggled against twentieth century fierce dictatorships – the memory of which still resonates – and they went through many years of domestic political terrorism which has scarred them for life. Both boast powerful trade unionism (a strong progressive mindset with all its faults and good points), and at present are struggling against austerity measures, the international financial markets, rating agencies, public debt, and massive youth unemployment.

A bigger Podemos

Podemos is using all that experience in a way, while M5S seems to be going off on a tangent on the European stage. And that must have something to do with Grillo, whose larger than life character has nothing to do with Podemos leaders, least of all with the equally charismatic Pablo Iglesias, the face of Podemos: in terms of age, there are thirty years and three months separating the two men. A whole generation.

Maybe Grillo, who must be aware of Podemos’ potential for impact (or at least his close aides and spin-doctors must), doesn’t believe in Podemos because it’s led by people he feels are too young or too academic with little hands-on experience of the real world. Nigel Farage, a former City trader, in this light, is a whole different proposition. Of course he is. And the way he’s gathered consent in Britain is phenomenal. Even more so in a country were the first-past-the-post electoral system doesn’t allow for new parties to enter Westminster that easily.

Grillo knows all that too (and so do his colleagues). Farage has a solid understanding of business and money matters; he can boast close ties in the City of London having had a whole career in it. Ukip and M5S would then make sense standing together in Strasbourg (and Brussels and Luxembourg City, the many seats of the EU parliament) – a crusade against the EU grounded on practical knowledge gathered over the decades by seasoned men who know how the world works. But that could also be perceived as betraying the young and their buoyancy, which lends itself so well to what M5S is about. And if Podemos grows even bigger, well… the Spaniards may decide one day they don’t want to have anything to do with M5S, its image having been tarnished by then. Too late. And you can see another contradiction coming.

Secondary inconsistencies

As Italian scholars Lorenzo Del Savio and Matteo Mameli brilliantly explained earlier this year in an exhaustive Open Democracy article, “[M5S] conceives of elected representatives as mere [spokespersons] of the citizens. In this perspective, [constitutional] free mandate is the tool that allows elected representatives to disregard the interests and views of ordinary citizens, to act [instead] in their own interest or in the interest of powerful actors in society, such as lobbies and corporations. MPs who dissent from the [M5S] line are seen […] as betraying what in our opinion is the core of M5S’s distinctiveness, its radical anti-representative stance.”

How is such stance going to morally, ethically and politically fit with the kind of generous financial support other parties get? In other words: if M5S has managed to bravely keep itself to itself in Rome defending its anti-representative or direct-democracy ways, why does it feel it has to engage with parties that are far from such views of how to do politics? Are M5S voters happy about it? Has the EU parliamentary stage been taken seriously enough?

Beppe Grillo and his political idiosyncrasies – the anti-left posture

Grillo has made no efforts to disguise his disliking of the left (note that Podemos’ programme is similar to Izquierda Unida’s, or United Left, as well as being further to the left than that of the Spanish Socialist Party). His revulsion stems in all likelihood from the late 80s, when the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) took offence at his satirical comments as a stand-up comedian.

In his day, Grillo had the sharpest tongue that had ever been televised. At the peak of his enormous success his career was abruptly cut short. Everybody loved his cynical, angry and deadpan, hilarious humour (incidentally, it vaguely brings to mind Frankie Boyle’s), which was mostly directed at politicians of any colour, a great way of keeping egocentric leaders like Bettino Craxi (PSI) in check.

Literally overnight he was told to get out. No more TV. That was it. The touchy political establishment had decided Grillo had to shut up, and the political left of the time had a lot to do with it. And that has bugged Grillo ever since. No more dealing with the left, he must have told himself, and even legitimately so – clever satirists should be welcomed, not ostracized. Democracy can always do with them. Good comedians can encourage thinking.

The man is therefore on an anti-establishment as well as an anti-left crusade, way beyond all the reasonable arguments against old-school politics. In a way, that’s not in line which many M5S activists and electors wish to attain. You can see actually that with Grillo it’s not all about the old political establishment as a whole, but rather against one segment of it in particular. That would in turn partly explain his choices of European affiliation.

Anyhow, you can still understand his current campaigning against Jean-Claude Juncker. But why then ignore Podemos if that’s what you’re doing in Europe? Is it the intrinsic left in Podemos that bothers Grillo? Is it because maybe he talked to its leaders Pablo Iglesias (who speaks Italian) and Juan Carlos Monedero and they told him that their intention was to join the European United Left–Nordic Green Left, the leftwing political group in the European parliament? Or rather, and it’d be sad if it were true, is it because Grillo didn’t think Podemos was convincing enough as an ally as seen back in Italy? Is Nigel Farage more telegenic than Pablo Iglesias?

Euroscepticism

The shaky Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) – Grillo’s and Farage’s Eurosceptic political group in Strasbourg – isn’t about progressiveness, a term that however could legitimately be interpreted as an empty, over-used label. Such a word, on the other hand, can help deliver an idea of what you’re about, particularly when agendas become densely packed as well as contradictory and the man in the street starts scratching his head furiously in complete bafflement – ‘what are these politicians on about?’ Disengagement ensues. As a matter of fact, many M5S grassroots activists didn’t agree at all about going in with Farage & Co.

Being progressive means independently canvassing among ordinary people, away from silver, shiny, sleek representative skyscrapers that like keeping men apart from other men, in a perpetual state of anxiety about their own destiny. Progressiveness has one fundamental goal in mind: justice. Many politicos on the upper echelons don’t really care about all this – just look around your own neighbourhood, if you are anywhere in southern Europe (and beyond): living standards, quite possibly, have dropped there too.

Both Podemos and M5S oppose such leaders’ choices and values for a reason. They are allies by nature, both on the same side, fighting unjustified privileges and corruption, sharing a taste for social justice, in the knowledge that the old left has failed to inspire. They also know that new arguments and a new language can tap into the basin of chronic non-voters as well. And that immigration has nothing to do with the economic issues we are currently grappling with on the Continent.

Strasbourg as a mirror

Yet, in Strasbourg, one movement (Podemos) looks in one direction and the other (M5S) in the opposite. They sit on very separate sides of the European parliamentary spectrum instead of talking to one another and thus displaying a united front. It defeats all logic. Europe’s ‘precariat’ class – as defined by the British scholar Guy Standing – could do with them together in the same EU parliamentary group; and the two together with the various Greens would be a force to be reckoned with: re-freshening and rewriting progressiveness – inspiring the young and those disenchanted with traditional social-democrats (Labour included).

You can just hear the right giggling: look at those lefties, always there squabbling among themselves, they can’t even organize a piss-up in a brewery. Personal hatred, Grillo’s essentially, is getting in the way, it seems. The evident inconsistencies between Ukip and M5S have been brushed under an EU carpet. It’s a liaison that’s meant to reinforce the fact that M5S is loudly anti-establishment, just like Ukip is; a superficial as well as a naïve stunt.

M5S is intrinsically interesting and revolutionary enough – on its own clearly progressive, direct-democracy (anti-representative) terms – it doesn’t need Ukip’s conservative support. It’s rather Ukip who needs M5S rather than the other way round, if anything. Not only that, it’s an engagement that could actually backfire. M5S has reinvented the left in Italy and it doesn’t know it. Ukip is surely not going to make them aware of that: it’s not its job, it’s got an agenda that’s light-years away (on curbing EU immigration, the kind of free movement that precisely young southern Europeans desperately need). Perhaps Podemos could shed some light on such awareness instead.

Clearly, image-wise, Grillo doesn’t want to be seen as a leftist back in his country: many Italian baby-boomers, who tend to be centre or centre-right as well as in favour of curbing migration (‘but where’s a Ukrainian carer for my eighty-eight year-old mother when you need one’, they also say), somehow go for his exuberance – they still remember his TV shows all too well – and thus are emotionally attracted to him (how much of politics is emotional and how much of it is rational?) That’s loads of votes. Grillo banks on that. By going openly leftwards, however, he knows he’d let them down.

It seems pretty much that M5S regards the European backdrop merely as a mirror projecting a carefully crafted self-portrait back home. Such is the high-esteem in which the EU parliament is held.

Therefore Mr Grillo, please, do think about it all so very intensely – pensaci, tanto tanto intensamente...

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