Members of Italy’s populist Five Star Movement (M5S) have voted overwhelmingly to sever ties with Nigel Farage and his MEPs in the European parliament, raising the prospect of a Ukip losing some of its EU funding.
Almost 80% of M5S’s 40,000 members voted to join the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), the liberal bloc led by the former Belgian prime minister and Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt. Only 16% voted to stay in the Farage-led Eurosceptic group, known as the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD).
Farage scorned Grillo’s attempts to leave, accusing the comedian and M5S founder of seeking to join the “Euro-fanatic establishment”. Grillo struck a more friendly tone, wishing Farage all the best as a possible British ambassador to the US, an idea floated by Donald Trump to the consternation of the British government.
His good humour, however, did not last long. The Italian MEPs’ plan collapsed on Monday evening, when Verhofstadt’s group rejected an alliance with M5S.
According to an EFDD spokesman, M5S’s 17 MEPs remain part of the group and have made no formal application to leave, but the large vote in favour of abandoning Ukip will put huge pressure on them to quit the EFDD, which prides itself on giving people a say.
If M5S MEPs follow the wishes of their members, Farage’s group will be left hanging by a thread. The EFDD had 44 MEPs from eight countries before Monday’s vote, but most were from Ukip or M5S. France, the Czech Republic, Germany, Lithuania, Poland and Sweden provided a handful of members to make up the numbers and meet EU requirements for a quarter of member states to be represented.
Without the Italians, it would only take the departure of one non-British MEP or three Ukip MEPs for Farage’s group to collapse. Their departure would also put the EEDD and Ukip’s EU funding at risk. The European parliament has eight political groups, which shared €61m (£53m) in funding in 2015. Money is closely tied to group size, so losing MEPs means a reduction in grants.
The collapse of the deal with Verhofstadt’s group potentially leaves M5S’s 17 MEPs without a home in the European parliament, reducing their access to EU funds too.
The The prospect of a new alliance for M5S unravelled on Monday afternoon as ALDE MEPs from northern European countries lined up to denounce a potential merger. A European parliament source said “overwhelming opposition” from ALDE MEPs had forced Verhofstadt to take the idea off the table, a damaging setback as he runs for president of the European parliament.
Verhofstadt’s previous criticism of Grillo also came back to haunt him. In 2014 he said it would be impossible for “any responsible pro-European group to take the M5S on board”.
In a statement released on Monday evening Verhofstadt said: “There is insufficient common ground to proceed with the request of the Five Star Movement to join the ALDE Group. There remain fundamental differences on key European issues.”
Urmas Paet, an liberal Estonian MEP, said he had opposed the merger since the surprise deal emerged over the weekend. “The main reason is that ALDE has been one of the most pro-European groups and Five Star has been one of the most anti-European.”
He said he had been surprised by M5S’s desire to join ALDE, given major differences in their positions on Brexit, the eurozone and EU foreign policy. Some of Grillo’s closest allies have called for the EU to drop sanctions against Russia, while Verhofstadt is one of the bloc’s strongest critics of Vladimir Putin. “It has not been handled well,” Paet said, adding that he had been disappointed in the lack of consultation within the liberal group.Grillo’s party has also praised the UK’s vote to leave the EU as a lesson in democracy, while the liberals are among the staunchest defenders of the single market. Verhofstadt has led calls for a eurozone finance minister and treasury, while M5S has been a strong critic of the single currency.
Merging with M5S was attractive to Verhofstadt , however, because it weakened the Eurosceptics while making ALDE the third-largest group in the European parliament.
Doubts among liberal MEPs were likely to have been intensified by a letter from Grillo to Farage in which he said together the two leaders could “change the world” despite his members’ decision to abandon their grouping.
Farage and Grillo joined forces in 2014 to create the EFDD on a platform attacking the creation of “a single centralised European superstate”.
Grillo, however, wrote in his blog at the weekend that he wanted M5S to find a new grouping because it no longer shared common goals with Ukip.
The EFDD group said Farage had sent a prophetic text message to Grillo on Sunday, which said it would be illogical for M5S to join ALDE. “They loathe direct democracy. You may not be there for long,” he said.
On Monday Farage said: “I didn’t expect to be proved right so quickly.”