In a stunning post on his blog published on Sunday, the founder of Italy's Five-Star Movement (M5S), Beppe Grillo, said his political movement should cut ties with Nigel Farage's anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) in the European Parliament, and seek a hook up with the European liberals led by European Federalist Guy Verhofstadt.
Should this unexpected switch go ahead, it could, according to Reuters, see 5-Star "enter mainstream European politics and move away from the anti-system fringes", a shift that might reassure other EU capitals that have grown uneasy about its rising popularity.
In his blog post, Grillo said in a post on his blog that since Farage had led Ukip to Britain voting to leave the EU, the two parties no longer shared common goals and he recommended leaving the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD). “Recent events in Europe, such as Brexit, have led us to reconsider the nature of the EFDD group,” Grillo wrote. “With the extraordinary success of the leave campaign, Ukip achieved its political objective: to leave the European Union.
In some ways the recommendation is forward-looking, and anticipates the departure of UK MEPs from the next legislature. As Grillo said “let’s discuss the concrete facts: Farage has already abandoned the leadership of his party and British MEPs will leave the European parliament in the next legislature. Until then, our British colleagues will be focused on developing the choices that will determine the UK’s political future.”
As The Guardian notes, Grillo and Farage forged an alliance over lunch in Brussels after 2014’s European elections, in which Ukip took the largest share of the vote in Britain and M5S came second in Italy after winning 17 seats. Both said at the time that the group was aimed at “restoring freedom and national democracy”, with Farage adding: “Expect us to fight the good fight to take back control of our countries’ destinies.”
However, since then Grillo said the two parties had only voted together around 20% of the time over the past 2-1/2 years. He added that UKIP had achieved its political goal when Britain voted last year to leave the European Union. "To stay in EFDD would mean we would face the next 2-1/2 years without a common policy objective," Grillo wrote.
Over two years later, the alliance appears to be over, and today Grillo wrote that his party was in talks with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and asked 5-Star members to back the initiative in an online ballot. In a move that would shockingly see his party mesh with European liberals, Grillo's blog post called an online referendum, scheduled for Sunday and Monday, on breaking away and instead forming a new group with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE).
ALDE is led by former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, who is also the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator. He is a keen European federalist and his strong, pro-EU views would seem diametrically opposed with the eurosceptic 5-Star, which has previously ridiculed the liberal leader. Grillo also said he had also approached the Greens about a possible tie-up, but was rebuffed, adding ALDE was the only group willing to discuss an accord with his movement.
With ALDE’s 68 MEPs, the alliance could become the “third political force in the European parliament”, Grillo wrote. He said the two shared values linked to “direct democracy, transparency, freedom and honesty." They also seem to share a heretofore unannounced vision toward European unity, in contravention to what Grillo has professed during most of his political career.
A UKIP spokesman said not all 5-Star parliamentarians were happy. "While it's interesting that some 5-Star MEPs adamantly wish to stay in the EFDD group as adults, we wish them all the best whatever they do," the spokesman said.
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Grillo's apparent change of ideology has already led to a swift political response: 5-Star MEP Marco Zanni urged party members to reject the switch, while Grillo's opponents in Italy lambasted his strategic shift, with the anti-euro Northern League party calling ALDE the most pro-European party in parliament.
Northern League leader Matteo Salvini blasted the proposal saying "What a pity. (5-Star) is moving from the barricades to the comfy seats."
5-Star was founded in 2009 and had risen rapidly to become Italy's main opposition party. It does not fit into any clearly defined political ideology, focusing its energies primarily on denouncing corruption and political wrongdoing. It has repeatedly called for a referendum on Italy leaving the euro single currency, and has criticized EU policy making, but has said it does not seek Italy leaving the European Union.
Perhaps the proposal is merely a tactic to yield greater political leverage in Europe: Grillo said it was important for 5-Star to be part of an EU parliamentary group because that would give it greater visibility and influence. "Refusing to belong to a political group would mean ... not being able to work," he wrote.
He added that by forging an alliance with Verhofstadt, ALDE would become the third largest group in the EU parliament. "This means that in many cases we would hold the balance of power."
However, while the proposed move may lead to an expansion of Grillo's power in the European Parliament, it is unclear how this tactical ideological change would resonate among his voter base, and whether it will cost the M5S the loss of material support domestically.