The Cable

Is Italy’s Five Star Movement Going Legit?

Why Italy’s anti-establishment movement dumped Nigel Farage for pro-EU allies.

The leader of the Five Star Movement, Beppe Grillo, delivers a speech during a campaign meeting  upon a referendum on constitutional reforms, on December 2, 2016 in Piazza San Carlo in Turin. Beppe Grillo, leader of the populist Five Star Movement calls his supporters to vote NO at the referendum on constitution which be held on December 4, 2016. / AFP / MARCO BERTORELLO        (Photo credit should read MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP/Getty Images)
The leader of the Five Star Movement, Beppe Grillo, delivers a speech during a campaign meeting upon a referendum on constitutional reforms, on December 2, 2016 in Piazza San Carlo in Turin. Beppe Grillo, leader of the populist Five Star Movement calls his supporters to vote NO at the referendum on constitution which be held on December 4, 2016. / AFP / MARCO BERTORELLO (Photo credit should read MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP/Getty Images)

Italy’s largest anti-establishment movement might be trying to come in from the cold.

On Monday, the Five Star Movement swapped out its partner in Europe, previously Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party (UKIP), for a new alliance with a strongly pro-EU group in the European Parliament.

It’s a surprising decision for a party whose go-to move is to rail against Brussels and call for Italy to do away with the euro. Experts say the switch may signal the eight-year-old movement is working to burnish its political bona fides, trying to reposition itself from the political fringes to the mainstream ahead of elections at home either this year or next. It’s also a sign that the euroskeptic anger that fueled Farage’s party and led to Brexit may have hit its limit in Italy.

Stefano Stefanini, a former Italian ambassador to NATO, called the decision “a bombshell” and “a smart electoral move by Beppe Grillo,” the comedian-turned-political leader of the Five Star Movement, also known by its Italian acronym M5S.

“Grillo doesn’t want to be lumped with [Marine] Le Pen; it would hurt M5S’s chances” at the ballot box in Italy, he told Foreign Policy. The new partnership with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) is “more popular with the potential voters that Grillo needs to win the elections.”

While the upstart party, founded in 2009, has expressed deeply euroskeptic views in the past and is often lumped in with other European populist parties, it doesn’t fit into any clear ideological pigeonhole. It is not a far-right movement, like Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, and doesn’t push an anti-immigrant agenda or advocate leaving the European Union wholesale, like UKIP. Focused mainly on issues like corruption and transparency, it’s not expressly far-left either.

Farage, leader of the UK’s Brexit campaign, wasn’t too pleased by the shakeup. In a statement, he said it was “completely illogical for 5-Star to join the most euro fanatic group in the European Parliament.”

But Grillo explained on his blog that the very success of Brexit has caused a “rethink” of the M5S’s partnership with UKIP in the European Parliament. (Aligning with a party set to leave the European Parliament is a tougher sell, after all.) And he said M5S members had only voted with UKIP about 20 percent of time.

The party’s new home, if accepted, may lend it more legitimacy on the international stage too, reassuring other potential European partners that M5S isn’t out to tear the EU apart, but rather is ready to help reform Europe. ALDE is led by Guy Verhofstadt, a former prime minister of Belgium and a true believer in EU integration. His latest book: Europe’s Last Chance: Why the European States Must Form a More Perfect Union.

“With our vote, we can make the difference and affect the outcome of many important decisions to counter the European establishment,” Grillo wrote on his blog. The alliance will make ALDE the third largest group in the EU Parliament.

The move could also distract from recent Five Star stumbles. The party made its first foray into actually governing last year. M5S candidates became mayors in Turin and Rome, two of Italy’s biggest cities. But Virginia Raggi, the new mayor of Rome, is struggling to fulfill her promise of cleaning up the capital, and her aides have recently been beset by corruption scandals.

Grillo said he’d also approached the Green Party about a new alliance in the European Parliament, but was rebuffed.

Some from Grillo’s party opposed the change in allegiance. In a Facebook post, M5S deputy Carlo Sibilia wrote “ALDE? Better alone than in bad company.”

It’s not clear ALDE members are on board with their new partners either, though they’re expected to go along with the sudden change. Sylvie Goulard, a French member of ALDE, called the switch “a maneuver which will confuse citizens” in a blog post. She said M5S hadn’t really evolved to become more pro-EU, but simply planned “to use the influence and financing available to a more powerful group, all the while conserving the full right to vote freely and not follow the group line.”

Italian parties also seemed disoriented. Guglielmo Picchi, a Northern League politician, called it “a strange move for Grillo,” but said it could clear the path for the Northern League to be the sole standard bearer for Italians who don’t favor the EU and want less immigration and more border control.

Alessia Mosca, an Italian member of the European parliament from ex-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s center-left Democratic Party, said the news seemed like “a marriage of convenience.”

“They are poles apart almost on every kind of policy, from free trade to foreign policy,” she told FP. “My deepest worry is that these kind of things make people distrust politics, and this is exactly what could hurt Europe in this moment.”

M5S’s reinvention likely won’t change one of its distinguishing features: Many of its deputies have seemed cozy with Russian President Vladimir Putin, visiting Moscow, repeating pro-Russia lines about Ukraine, NATO, and Syria, and promoting articles from RT, Russia’s state sponsored news outlet. This tracks with the growing Russian-European populist relationship of other groups challenging EU cohesion, like the National Front and UKIP.

Grillo’s group probably won’t dump Russia even after its embrace of a more moderate position in Europe, Stefanini said, because it serves domestic aims. Opposing sanctions on Russia, for example, is a vote getter in Italy. That will be one of the areas where the Five Star Movement and ALDE agree to disagree, he said. 

“For once in my life, I agree with Nigel Farage — that alliance won’t last for long,” Stefanini said. “But it’s a brilliant tactical move for the Five Stars — hats off to Grillo.”

Update 4:30 p.m. EST: In a twist, Beppe Grillo’s party may be left out in the European Parliament wilderness after all, despite their moves to go mainstream. Monday afternoon members of ALDE voted against allowing M5S members into their club, and it’s unclear where the party will land. They haven’t formally requested to leave their partnership with UKIP, but after almost 80 percent of their members voted to ditch Farage for ALDE, they’ll be under pressure to make a change. If they don’t find another large group to accept them, their 17 deputies will hold little heft as non-attached members of the European Parliament.

For his part, Grillo was happy to resort to the familiar tactic of blaming the system. “The establishment has decided to stop the Five Star Movement from entering the third largest group in the European Parliament,” he wrote.

Photo credit: MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP/Getty Images

Kavitha Surana is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy, where she produces breaking news and original reports with a particular focus on immigration, counterterrorism, and border security policy. Previously, Kavitha worked at New York magazine’s Bedford + Bowery blog, CNNMoney, The Associated Press in Italy, and Fareed Zakaria GPS and has freelanced from Italy and Germany for publications like Quartz, Al Jazeera America, OZY, and GlobalPost/PRI. In 2015, she was awarded a Fulbright trip to Germany, as well as a grant from the Heinrich Böll Foundation to report on migration and integration. She also reported from Rwanda and Senegal. Kavitha studied European history at Columbia University and holds a master’s degree in journalism and European studies from New York University. She has studied in Italy and Peru and speaks Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. @ksurana6

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