It may have appeared that Beppe Grillo, the Italian rabble-rouser and Eurosceptic who heads the Five Star Movement (M5S), had had an epiphany when he decided to dump Nigel Farage and Ukip and seek a European parliamentary alliance with Guy Verhofstadt, one of the most outspoken defenders of European unity.
But in Rome, far from being seen as a radical ideological shift and sudden embrace of Europe, the surprise move by Grillo – whose supporters voted overwhelmingly in an online vote on Monday to join Verhofstadt’s liberal democratic Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group – was seen as an attempt at a marriage of convenience.
If the proposed alliance is approved by the ALDE, the plan could bolster both Grillo’s party before Italian elections by giving it an air of legitimacy, and Verhofstadt personally by strengthening the ALDE after the former Belgian prime minister announced he was running to be president of the European parliament.
Grillo’s decision to seek an alliance with Verhofstadt could be a way of trying to put a less radical face on the M5S before elections, said some analysts, particularly among supporters on the left who may be concerned about the party’s increasingly rightwing rhetoric on issues such as migration and the euro.
“My impression is that this might be a move on the part of the M5S to become more plausible, to stop scaring voters away with its anti-Europeanism and to appear as a mainstream party that is not going to do anything incredibly stupid,” said Giovanni Orsina, a professor of history and politics at Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome.
Grillo said on his blog on Sunday that the new alliance would share common goals, from simplifying bureaucracy in Brussels to resolving the migration crisis through “permanent relocation”, and the promotion of the green economy. The union would make the ALDE the third largest alliance in the European parliament and would leave Farage’s grouping, the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD), hanging by a thread.
Grillo’s decision to call the snap online poll caught even members of the M5S off-guard, with one MEP, Marco Zanni, posting on his Facebook page that, along with party activists, he had only heard about the change on Sunday and was “shocked and dismayed” by the news. Another senior official, Manlio di Stefano, tweeted that the M5S’s support for a referendum on the euro and call for changes in Italy’s relationship with Europe and Nato did not depend on its association with ALDE.
The M5S-ALDE union is not yet set in stone. While in the online vote in Italy 78.5% of M5S supporters voted for an alliance with the ALDE, the change must also be approved by two-thirds of the liberal grouping’s members, who are voting on Tuesday evening.
Verhofstadt and Grillo stand at polar opposites on a range of issues, from their views on Vladimir Putin’s Russia to gay rights, the migrant crisis, freedom of the press and Europe’s open borders. The breadth of that gulf was best captured by each man’s reaction to the November election of Donald Trump.
For Verhofstadt, the “unthinkable” result was a triumph of “nativism over internationalism” that put EU’s territorial integrity at stake. Grillo saw the election as a tremendous victory for his own anti-establishment cause, saying Trump’s election was a great “vaffanculo” (“fuck you”) to the political establishment.
Now some analysts say Grillo is trying to position the M5S before Italy’s next election, which could be held as early as the spring. Monday’s vote, they say, also shows that he is becoming more pragmatic and obviously political. The movement is placed to do well whenever elections come, with polls showing what was once seen as a protest party now has the support of about 30% of Italian voters.
One reason the M5S has never been elected into national office is because it has always refused to form alliances with other parties to create a ruling majority in the Italian parliament. This latest move, though, could indicate Grillo is becoming more flexible in seeking opportunistic alliances.
Vincenzo Scarpetta, a senior policy analyst at the thinktank Open Europe, said that, in some ways, the M5S’s alliance with Ukip had been a marriage of convenience, too. Grillo had written in a blogpost that the M5S only voted with the British party on about 20% of votes, Scarpetta said.