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What’s Italy’s new protest party doing with UKIP?

The EU elections marked a rise of the European right almost everywhere, with Italy as a notable exception – leaving anti-establishment Five Star Movement struggling to figure out where it stands as it joins Nigel Farage’s group in the EU parliament.

Despite the arguments the decision raised among the Five Star Movement’s voters, the alliance is done: 78% of the the 29.584 registered Five Star Movement members who took part to the online poll said yes to having their 17 members in the European Parliament join UKIP in the Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD) group. A decision Nigel Farage, UKIP Leader and EFD Group President, was extremely satisfied with.

Farage, who’s been working to gather like-minded MEPs from several countries – but refused to open up to Marine Le Pen’s Front National and Greece’s neo-fascist Golden Dawn party – says he’s “delighted” by Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement decision to join with UKIP in the EU Parliament.

“I am very proud to have formed this Group with other MEPs and we undertake to be the peoples’ voice,” he says. The group includes MEPs from Czech Republic’s Party of Free Citizens, Latvia’s Latvian Farmers’ Union, Lithuania’s Order and Justice and the Sweden Democrats. There will also be independent MEP Joëlle Bergeron, former Front National candidate.

Former comedian Beppe Grillo, creator of Italy’s Five Star Movement, has called the vote “a great victory for direct democracy”.

There was more to the decision than simply choosing whether or not to join a group in the EU Parliament: it was also a matter of choosing a side after a long time spent claiming to be “beyond left and right” – and after an unexpected defeat at the European elections.

Born out of public outcry against the corruption and inadequacy of traditional parties, the Five Star Movement reaped a stunning success in Italy’s general elections in 2013, becoming the third main political force. Few people hid the fact theirs was a “vote to protest”: a vote to the Five Star Movement as an act of protest against conventional parties and politicians. Elected members of the party took their seat at the Parliament while promising to “open it up like a tin can”.

About a year and a half later, they seem to have failed to do as much. Keeping itself isolated from other parties, the Five Stars Movement did give voice to its voters’ protests – but, aside from that, it seemed to be getting little else done. Its base of support encompassing people from both right and left wing ideologies, the party also had to deal with many internal contradictions from the start.

On the other hand, aided by a general leniency of Italian press, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi excelled at giving out just the right image of himself in the past months: that of a young politician working fast to get Italy out of recession.

As a result, the Five Star Movement was soundly defeated at the European elections – losing almost three millions of votes since 2013 and only reaching 21% of votes against Renzi’s Democratic Party’s 40.8%.

The centre-left Democratic Party’s victory came as a surprise, and it was a huge shock for the Five Stars Movement, which had hoped to come very close to the Democratic Party or even to surpass it. The election’s outcome didn’t only mark the failure to surpass their biggest opponent: it changed everything most of the party’s arguments were based on. After over a year spent claiming old parties were “dead”, that the government – nominated and never elected – was not legitimated by vote and that only the Five Stars Movement represented the people, Grillo’s party is suddenly unable to use any of those arguments. Joining the EFD group may be a first step to recover by gaining influence in Europe.

Still, the alliance may not lack difficult moments, and not only because the many left-wing supporters of the Five Star Movement may not appreciate the turn to the right. There are several key points – immigration, energy policy and financial regulation being just few – where the Five Star Movement’s programme vastly differs from UKIP’s. And the Five Star Movement is well aware of it: the party’s MEPs are arguing that the group shouldn’t be sitting on the right side of the Parliament. MEP Ignazio Corrao says: “I don’t want to spend all the time explaining over and over that we have nothing to do with the right.”

The problem was clear even before this issue presented itself : shortly before the European elections took place, Grillo expressed appreciations for Alexis Tsipras’ ideas – going as far as saying that the president of Greece’s Syriza-United Social Front was “saying the same things” as the Five Star Movement. And yet Tsipras’ vision of Europe’s future couldn’t possibly be farther away from Nigel Farage’s UKIP.

Written by Alessandra Pacelli
Picture Credit: gruppo.it

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