In what may have been this weekend's biggest surprise, and one which some have suggested demonstrated Beppe Grillo's true nature, in a blog published on Sunday, the founder of Italy's Five-Star Movement (M5S) said his political movement should ditch Nigel Farage's anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) in the European Parliament, and seek a hook up with the liberal pro-EU group Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, or ALDE, led by European Federalist Guy Verhofstadt, in an attempt to consolidated power in the European parliament.
For those unfamiliar 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.
Sadly, what happened next to the 5-Star group was anything but the best. In fact, it was outright humiliation, because while 79% of M5S supporters endorsed the move in an internet vote on Sunday and Monday, it was the object of Grillo's affections, that crushed the M5S' hopes when Verhofstadt had to give up his plan only 20 minutes into a meeting with national delegations of his gorup on Monday evening.
Liberal MEPs rejected Verhofstadt's bid to obtain the Italian populist parties' support
“I have come to the conclusion that there are not enough guarantees to push forward a common agenda to reform Europe," he said in a statement. "There remain fundamental differences on key European issues, like the euro" the former Belgian prime minister added.
— Guy Verhofstadt (@GuyVerhofstadt) January 9, 2017
Quoted by EU Observer, he said that "on issues of shared interest, such as the environment, transparency and direct democracy, the Alde Group and the Five Star Movement will continue to work closely together," however.
The MEPs' blockade is a setback for Verhofstadt who hoped to clinch the parliament's presidency as a compromise candidate against the conservative and socialist candidates. It was also humiliation for Grillo, who did an unprecedented ideological U-turn, just to get precisely nothing out of it.
A vote on the unexpected Alde-M5S marriage was supposed to take place among the liberal group on Tuesday (10 January), but it quickly became clear on Monday that liberal MEPs considered the populist Italian party as going directly against their core values. Some liberal MEPs were struck by the notion that one of Europe's populist, anti-euro parties should become the biggest gathering within the pro-EU, federalist liberal group.
Several Alde member parties, in Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Estonia said they would not support M5S joining the group. Kaja Kallas, an Estonian MEP, told EUObserver website that the political differences between M5S and the liberals were too big.
"The biggest issue is the difference in policies, look at their antiglobalist, anti-Europe, nationalistic policies and what we stand for. They are anti-euro and supported Brexit, both of which are weakening the EU. We think all member state benefit from the union," Kallas said. She also voiced concern that with its 17 MEPs, M5S would become the biggest party within the Alde group and could set its tone, which would mean a fundamental change for the group.
Another faultline was that while liberal MEPs have voiced concern over Russian meddling in European affairs, Grillo's party supports lifting EU sanctions against Russia.
Finally, most liberal MEPs were kept in the dark during negotiations between Grillo and Verhofstadt, adding to the discontent about a possible merger. According to a leaked copy, the agreement between Verhofstadt and Grillo gave a role in the group leadership for the M5S in exchange for their support for the Belgian politician's bid for president, shedding light on previous negotiations between the two party leaders.
Meanwhile, humiliated suitor Grillo, tried to rebuild the same bridges he burned down just 24 hours earlier, and in a letter titled ‘Dear Nigel' posted on his blog on Monday, explained that M5S wanted to use the liberal group to achieve its shared goals with Ukip.
"The 5 Star Movement's battle has yet to come, and to win it we evaluated to go to another political group in the European Parliament because, in this way, we think we can deal with more concentration both, you and us, the next challenges,” he wrote in English.
"We can change this world,” he added.
Sadly, after today's fiasco and this weekend's ideological flip-flop, that is increasingly uncertain.
What will happen to the M5S MEPs is unclear. Before Alde turned down Grillo's offer to join, Farage had said in a statement that "Beppe Grillo will now join the Euro-fanatic establishment”.