Can Europe Make It?

The Grillo-Farage connection

Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement has formed an alliance in the European Parliament with Nigel Farage's UKIP. We should have seen this coming.

Edoardo Quadri
3 July 2014
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Beppe Grillo and Nigel Farage. Flickr/Politica Italia. Some rights reserved.

It was, after all, inevitable.

A year and four months after its unexpected and surprising electoral result, Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement is beginning to turn into that same factious political entity which the Movement was created to defeat.

Until just before last May's European elections, which have at least momentarily attributed to Prime Minister Matteo Renzi an overwhelming 41 percent of the votes, the Five Star Movement had managed to "float" above the partisanship of Italian politics.

In some ways, this conscious and careful distance that the Movement has taken from the mainstream parties and their political failures, largely determined its success.

Beppe Grillo's communicative expertise, deriving from his past (and present) career as a showman and comedian, has managed to define the Movement as a container of dissatisfaction, disappointment, resentment and, albeit rarely, even rage. Prior to and following the 2013 elections, between crowded public squares and shouted slogans - typically emptied of constructive proposals - the Movement was in fact hardly identifiable on the political spectrum.

Acting as a magnet of protest votes, the Movement's ideology was often subjective and varied within an electorate composed of voters no longer identifying themselves with Italy’s main political parties.

Nonetheless, in the midst of this confusion, the different views of the Five Star supporters were somehow harmonized by a common intent, a shared belief in the necessity to “declare war” on the political elites responsible for the economic and occupational crisis that had forced Italy onto its knees.

"Send them all home!" has been the battle cry, the fil rouge connecting Grillo's "comizi" (public gatherings) to the parliamentary speeches of the newly-elected MPs, whose obstructionism has largely been coherent with the Movement's nature, its repulsion for the "old" politics and its determined refusal to cooperate with any of the parties represented in Parliament, independently of their ideology or policies. In a political arena which, despite the Movement's efforts, is still dominated by a system of parties, however, this strategy was destined to fail. 

The European elections in some ways brought clarity and finally exposed the true nature of the Movement. As opposed to its unwillingness to enter into any coalition following the 2013 national elections, Grillo's populist movement was obliged, for once, to choose and be accountable for this choice.

In order to have a role and influence within the European Parliament, national parties are encouraged to identify themselves with a "family" of European parties and, as the elections approached it became clear that the Movement would opt for one of the three political groups whose views range from conservative to outright nationalist, eurosceptic and, at times, racist.

Following Front National leader Marine Le Pen's choice of forming an alliance with the Lega Nord - the Italian separatist and anti-immigration populist party - Beppe Grillo decided to "let" the web deliberate on what stance the Five Star Movement should take in Europe, "freely choosing" between three options - one of which unrealistically suggested the Movement signed-up to none of the European Parliamentary groups.

With Marine Le Pen's European Alliance for Freedom (EAF) out of the equation, Grillo resolutely decided to allow online supporters to choose between an alliance with the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) led by British Prime Minister David Cameron, or with the Europe for Freedom and Democracy (EDF) group led by the UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage.

Undoubtedly guided by Grillo's deliberately limited options and perhaps unaware of the choice they were asked to make, the moment those twenty-three thousand Five Star voters (out of a total of twenty-nine thousand votes) sitting in front of their computers, laptops or smartphones had 'clicked' expressing their preference to side with Nigel Farage, they had automatically become a part of the Movement's gradual electoral decline.

Despite Beppe Grillo’s efforts to portray the British nationalist leader as the ideal candidate, some supporters and Five Star parliamentarians have already decalred their opposition, pointing to those instances of racism and xenophobic statements widely advertised in the British press and their echo in the views conveyed by UKIP. At least, they are anxious about the party’s ability to attract such extremist profiles and its inability to enlist candidates whose views are not founded upon racist beliefs.

Those same supporters who cast their vote in favour of the Five Star Movement, are now forced to embark on a European project with a new partner, a political leader likely unknown to most Five Star electors, who (in)famously stated that people “would have a perfect right to be concerned if a group of Romanian people suddenly moved in next door”.

It is in fact hard to believe that the entire Five Star electorate will appreciate being depicted in Brussels as the Italian counterpart of a party whose members proudly post, as in the case of David Wycherley, racist comments about British Olympian Mo Farah. Some will most likely even regret voting for the Movement once they realize that UKIP also elected MEP Roger Helmer, who is in favour of testing homeopathy to cure homosexuality. 

Nor would the most open-minded among Grillo’s voters be content with forming a political alliance with a party who has enlisted candidates supporting compulsory abortion for children affected by Downs syndrome as in the case of Geoffrey Clark, and city councilors like Chris Pain who brand immigrants as “free-loading, benefit-grabbing, resource-sucking, baby-making, non-English-speaking ********* (…) hairy-faced, sandal-wearing, bomb-making, camel-riding, goat-********, rag heads”. Nor will they ever bring themselves to agree with UKIP councillor John Sullivan’s idea of shooting one gay person to test whether others will change their minds.  

In the eyes of his voters Beppe Grillo will inevitably be responsible for this politically indelible decision which has led the Movement to change its - until then - liquid shape, to model it around the views advocated by UKIP and the other, in some cases more extreme, EFD members. At least a portion of the Five Star voters will thus inevitably feel betrayed by the Movement’s decision and will never identify themselves with Nigel Farage’s party.

Choosing the European Green Party as our Parliamentary Group would have been the natural choice. If we form an alliance with the extreme right, I’m leaving the Movement”.  This is one view expressed by Five Star supporters on the internet, and I believe it represents the two main issues characterizing the “post-UKIP” Five Star Movement. On the one hand it identifies the explicit lack of real freedom and democracy within the Movement, as people were forced to choose – after (not before) the elections - between three options imposed by the “Leader”. On the other, it clearly reflects the Movement’s sudden and unusual identification with a political ideology and, given the extremism of such view, the inevitable and consequential loss of electoral support. 

In a political arena where PM Renzi has managed to persuade centrist voters as well as former Berlusconi supporters to vote for his liberal and reformist policies, Grillo’s decision to forge an alliance with Nigel Farage has undoubtedly been a bold choice. With the Italian traditional Right currently reorganizing and the Lega Nord resuscitating, it will be quite hard for Grillo to conquer the hearts and minds of Italy’s rooted extremist electorate in order to counter the loss of voters attracted by Renzi’s magnetism. 

If this is the path the Movement has “decided” to opt for, however, Beppe Grillo’s creature will in the medium term be unable to contain the loss of those voters naturally and intrinsically opposed to the EFD’s ideology and policies, and will need to rethink its role within the domestic political spectrum, as the true colours of the post-UKIP Five Star Movement have now finally been revealed.

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