January 10, 2017
It is hard to make up a story of political confrontation where every single party ends up a loser. After the members of the Five Star Movement voted overwhelmingly to accept the proposal that its MEPs join the liberal Alde group in the European Parliament, Alde itself backed out as half its members opposed the accession. Stephano Folli, La Repubblica's veteran political commentator, talks about the Waterloo of the Five Star Movement. After the serial mismanagement of the Five Star administration in Rome's city council, the party has goofed up again on a large scale, and is now facing the loss of European funds as it will no longer be in a recognised political group of the EP.
But there is also the question of what this means for the future of Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of Alde. He staged a graceful retreat yesterday, but it is clear that he is not leading his group. Corriere della Sera has an interview with Fredrick Federley MEP, of the Swedish liberal party, who said that most of the opposition had come from Sweden and Finland. We also noted yesterday that Sylvie Goulard MEP, from France, opposed the Five Star Movement and was quoted all over the Italian press. This was a warning that it would be no smooth process.
One of the attractions for Alde would have been the addition of Italians - there are none right now. Federley said this benefit did not outweigh the challenge posed by the Five Star Movement to the group's liberal and pro-European values. Federley noted that the discussion in the group - if you want to call it that - lasted only 15 minutes, and Verhofstadt was the main speaker. The vote was 50-50, and Verhofstadt concluded that he did not want to risk the cohesion of his group by pressing this issue. The accession of the Five Star Movement can be discussed again in the next pariamentary term, Federley said.
For the Five Star Movement, adhesion to the Alde group would have given them some establishment credentials, which they are now lacking. On the other hand, they would have lost some of their populist appeal. Their threat of a referendum on eurozone membership would have rung hollow if they were members of a group in favour of further integration of the eurozone.
Corriere reports that the Five Star Movement had consulted six economists before it made the decision to apply to accede to Alde, and all six of them had given a negative response. The rejection by Alde leaves the Five Star MEPs without an allegiance in the EP.
In his comment Folli notes that Grillo has learned that the antics he uses in Italian politics all the time are not working at European level. And Verhofstadt should have known better, and should not have allowed himself to get been carried away by opportunism. The previous alliance was perfect for the Five Star Movement - anti-European, pro-Trump, in alliance with Nigel Farage. For Folli this cataclysmic event symbolises the beginning of the decline of the Five Star Movement.
We would caution against drawing any quick conclusions from this disaster. There have been previous peak-Grillo forecasts before. Populist parties fail when they cease to be populist, not through political accidents like these. The question for us is whether the rejection by Alde will radicalise the Five Star Movement further. No longer having a power base in Brussels, its anti-Europeanism might become less constrained. It is also possible that Forza Italia and the Lega might exploit the situation, and harden their anti-Europeanism - though it has to be said that Forza Italia is also embedded in a deeply pro-European group in the EP, the EPP.