Italy’s Five Star Movement could be facing a spell in the European political wilderness after a secret deal for the party to join the pro-EU liberal group in the European Parliament was scuppered by furious liberal MEPs.
On Monday morning, members of the Italian anti-establishment party voted overwhelmingly to quit the Eurosceptic EFDD grouping in the European parliament, which includes Nigel Farage’s UKIP, and instead join the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), following a secret deal between M5S leader Beppe Grillo and liberal group leader, former Belgian PM Guy Verhofstadt.
But within hours, an uprising by liberal MEPs from across Europe, who had greeted news of the deal with astonishment and anger, forced Verhofstadt into a humiliating climbdown and to release a statement announcing that ALDE had rejected the request for membership from M5S.
When the ALDE executive committee met on Monday afternoon, Verhofstadt was left with no choice but to withdraw the agreement.
In his statement, Verhofstadt said that he had “come to the conclusion that there are not enough guarantees to push forward a common agenda to reform Europe.. and insufficient common ground to proceed with the request of the Five Star Movement to join the ALDE Group. Fundamental differences on key European issues remain”.
Grillo called the move a decision of the establishment to block the M5S. He said the party had “made the system tremble like never before”, and the M5S would now work to create its own group for the next parliament.
Announcing the vote on Sunday, the former comedian had said there was no point sticking with the UKIP grouping because Nigel Farage’s party had achieved its goal with Brexit.
In response, Farage said: “Grillo will now join the Euro-fanatic establishment which supports TTIP, mass immigration and an EU army, but oppose direct democracy. 5 star have joined the EU establishment.”
But the M5S are technically still members of the EFDD, a spokesperson of the eurosceptic group said after ALDE's decision.
Asked about what happens now, a spokesperson for UKIP told BuzzFeed News "nobody has a clue” what happens now since Grillo and M5S had never formally informed EFDD of their decision to leave the group. Asked how they felt, the spokesperson suggested “A German word beginning with ‘S’”.
According to Grillo, the liberals were the only group open to talking with his party. The Greens had refused to enter negotiations, he said, and a Green MEP tweeted on Monday that the former comedian was a liar, and only after positions for his party.
Reports suggested the Greens were concerned about M5S policies on immigration and European integration as well as the party’s unclear relationship with the private firm Casaleggio Associati led by Davide Casaleggio, the son of the party’s late co-founder Gianroberto Casaleggio.
In November, BuzzFeed News revealed that the Casaleggio firm is behind a string of websites that regularly publishes clickbait content, conspiracy theories, and fake news. The websites, which the firm describes as independent, also publish highly partisan pro-M5S content on Facebook.
BuzzFeed News understands that most liberal MEPs were kept in the dark by Verhofstadt during weeks of negotiations, with many finding out about the talks only after Grillo’s announcement on Sunday.
Many MEPs were left puzzled as to why a party that promises to hold a referendum over leaving the euro is being allowed to join the liberal group.
All but one of a handful of MEPs BuzzFeed News spoke to said they strongly opposed the M5S joining the group. One MEP described it as “scandalous”. Another said it was a cynical ploy by Verhofstadt to secure votes (the M5S has 17 MEPs, and would make ALDE the third-largest group in the European parliament) in his bid to become the next president of the European parliament. In a video announcing his candidacy, Verhofstadt said that “Europe is threatened by nationalists and populists of all kinds”.
The one MEP open to the idea said they were reassured by the party’s commitments to environmental protection. The M5S has voted with ALDE about 50% of the time, more than with UKIP, according to analysis by VoteWatch.
Several others raised concerns about the ammunition the move would give opposition parties as well as the potential impact teaming up with a party viewed as populist could have on their respective national electorates.
The French MEP Sylvie Goulard, who stood against the former Belgian prime minister in the race to become the group’s candidate for parliament’s presidency, published a blog post detailing her opposition to the marriage. The MEP said the differences between ALDE and the M5S are “sizeable”, citing the party’s protectionist trade tendencies, Grillo’s description of Brexit as an “extraordinary success”, recurrent attacks on German chancellor Angela Merkel, and the party’s pledge to hold a referendum on the euro.
“The deep questions are barely raised,” Goulard concluded.
A copy of a document outlining the agreement between Verhofstadt and the M5S, leaked online, set out the rationale for the relationship. It touched upon shared core values of freedom, equality, and transparency as well as promising a drive to renew the EU and a push for greater direct democracy.
The deal also set out in writing the positions the M5S would gain, as well as the Italian party’s pledge to support Verhofstadt’s bid for president of the European parliament. If that bid is successful, the M5S would also support his leadership of the liberal group, the agreement says.
However, according to the MEPs BuzzFeed News spoke to, the deal failed to address numerous concerns. As well as the economic and trade issues raised by Goulard, there were worries about the M5S’s views on foreign policy issues.
The M5S has repeatedly called for sanctions on Russia to be dropped as it has pivoted towards more Kremlin-friendly positions in recent months. One of the party’s top MPs has claimed a coup took place in Ukraine, and that the EU and the US were involved in a campaign of disinformation and interference there.
The party has tabled a parliamentary question asking for relations with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to be normalised. And the M5S has protested against Italian troops being used in NATO training exercises in the Baltic.
The marriage between Verhofstadt, one of the EU’s staunchest advocates, with Grillo, one of its loudest critics, would have constituted a significant U-turn for both parties.
In a now deleted post on Facebook from 2014, Verhofstadt wrote: “It is impossible for any responsible, pro-European group to take the M5S on board.”
In 2015, Grillo described Verhofstadt as “unpresentable” and added him to a list of people who should be kicked out of the European parliament.
Alberto Nardelli is Europe editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alberto Nardelli at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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