The year has not got off to a flying start for Italy's anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S). In the space of just two days last week, the M5S was marched to the top of the Brussels hill and then down again by the resident Duke of York, leader Beppe Grillo.
In what looks like an embarrassingly hamfisted operation, Grillo asked the faithful if they were willing to switch their EU parliamentary alliance from the eurosceptic EFDD group (dominated by Ukip) to the more mainstream, pro-EU Alde. Party members were asked to approve the move in an online vote.
In the vote of 40,654 members, 78.5 per cent approved the change of parliamentary grouping. The problem was that just as soon as the M5S rank and file gave the green light, senior figures in Alde became worried about the prospect of joining forces with a maverick, often Eurosceptic protest group.
In the end, either Alde (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) or its leader, former Belgian prime minister Guy Vershofstadt, reneged on a previous agreement and rejected the M5S. In short, the M5S found itself in a Groucho Marx moment, having just voted to join a club that did not want it as a member.
Tail between legs, Grillo's party had to apply to Ukip MEP and former leader Nigel Farage to be allowed back into the EFDD rather than face the ignominy of the "non-inscrits", MEPs who are not members of a recognised political group – a sort of Strasbourg mixed zone where you never get to talk to anyone that matters. Worse still, life in the mixed zone would have deprived the movement of some €680,000 in parliamentary funds.
Making a show
Needless to say, the M5S faux pas offered a glorious opportunity for political rivals and commentators to highlight both the movement's capacity for figuraccia (making a show of yourself) and incompetence.
In truth, ever since it became a nationwide force at the 2013 general election, winning 25.5 per cent of the vote and 108 lower house seats, the M5S has enjoyed a difficult relationship with the mainstream national media. Grillo often argues that the media are, by and large, against him and his movement. For their part, the media are ofttimes baffled by a political force that likes to describe itself as “post-ideological”.
On Italian TV last week, Luigi Di Maio (30), the man who could well one day become the first M5S prime minister, said people were frightened of the movement.
“We were born as a post-ideological force,” Di Maio said. “We’re neither of the left nor of the right. I mean, there are issues like unemployment benefit [which does not exist in Italy], incentives to industry and worker protection which are neither left nor right, but just good ideas.”
It was easy for critics to jeer four years ago, when the movement first turned up in numbers in parliament, refusing to make government-forming alliances and insisting that it would go it alone as a pure, uncontaminated force. Now, however, up to 10 million Italians might be willing to vote for it.
An indication of its influence can be gleaned from the fact that the M5S campaign against former prime minister Matteo Renzi’s failed reform referendum was a significant factor in Renzi’s defeat and subsequent downfall.
Even the problems of the M5S mayor of Rome, Virginia Raggi, in an opening six months marked by resignation after resignation of officials and an apparent series of bad calls by her, do not seem to have dealt any sort of killer blow to the movement.
No help coming
It could be that Raggi’s performance simply reflects a lack of experience, as may also be the case with the party’s MEPs. But when the mayor has looked for help outside the M5S, she does not seem to have received much collaboration.
On the contrary, the Roman shakers and makers seem to see Raggi as some sort of Martian, one who cost them a potential glorious pay day when she rejected bidding to hold the 2024 Olympics in Rome.
Where many saw the Olympics as a great opportunity for both Rome and Italy, others, including the M5S mayor, saw it as yet another chance to exploit public finances in a city that already is in debt to the tune of €13 billion, thanks essentially to past corrupt governance and Mafia infiltration.
Beppe Grillo argued last week that the “establishment” had blocked the M5S in Brussels. That may be, but the intriguing thing is that in attempting to broker a deal with Alde, the M5S seemed ready to contemplate an alliance with a mainstream force.
Last week’s EU experience may suggest that the M5S is already well down the road towards evolving from a populist “protest” force to one of pragmatic governance – and maybe even compromise.