Last week, I travelled to the Veneto region and spoke with politicians, academics and journalists about Italian politics, Veneto autonomy and the Five Star Movement, mostly in and around Padua and Venice. What I discovered furthered and mostly confirmed a lot of things I had been thinking about Italian politics previous to the visit.
I had written, prior to arriving in Italy, an article about ALDE, the liberal grouping in the European Parliament, rejecting the attempt by the Five Star Movement to join said grouping. The title of the article will tell you most of what you need to know about my position on the matter: “ALDE turning down the Five Star Movement is an epoch defining act of stupidity for European liberalism“. I received a lot of flak for this piece from Lib Dems and other European liberals, the tone of most of it you can get from this article by Mark Valladares called “Nick Tyrone – taking hyperbole to an epoch-defining low.”
As a result, it was preying on my mind a little as I arrived in Padua – was I all wrong about the Five Star Movement and the ALDE approach? Were the liberals right to reject them?
For what it is worth, everyone I spoke to in Italy agreed with my position, not just in terms of the ALDE rejection being stupid (literally on this count – “molto stupido” I heard over and over again) but that their reasons for thinking it was a mistake were the same ones that I had pointed out. These were people with no love of Five Star either; mostly politicians or journalists aligned with or inside of Partito Democratico or Forza Italia, the dominant left and right-wing parties in Italy respectfully.
The Five Star Movement are essentially an amorphous party formed mostly of young people who are angered by the “same old” in politics. The more I heard about Five Star from people in Veneto – how they are more right facing in more traditionally right-wing areas of the country and left in leftist areas; how environmentalism is the one steady in an ever changing policy soup; the language inside of Five Star regarding the breaking up of the old duopoly; the tendency to take up popular yet very difficult to achieve policy positions thinking that the power to enact them is unlikely to come their way – the more they reminded me of another party, almost eerily. That party is the Liberal Democrats, of course.
ALDE’s rejection of Five Star rested on three main issues. One, Five Star’s dislike of the single currency; two, Beppe Grillio, the founder of Five Star, a well known comedian in Italy, and his supposed dictatorial meddling in the affairs of the party; anti-immigrant statements from Five Star. I’ll deal with each of these in turn.
Yes, Five Star have said repeatedly that if they get into power, they will look to hold a referendum on Italy remaining in the single currency with a view to leaving it. Now, I don’t agree with Five Star’s position on this one. I think that while there were unfortunate elements to the way the single currency was set up, it is better to keep it intact than to start having countries inside of it go back to their old currencies. However, this is more of a pragmatic point than one of principle. Has keeping the single currency going become a liberal shibboleth somewhere along the line? Oddly, this seems to be the chief reason Five Star were rejected by ALDE as well, given the statements by ALDE figures.
Two, Grillo and his hold on the party. Yes, Grillo says a lot of unguarded and regrettable things, many of which I don’t like or agree with myself. But if the issue here is the power he has over the party, surely ALDE letting Five Star MEPs in would help spread the powerbase of the movement thinner and give the young idealists within it another Grillo-free outlet? Bear in mind, Grillo isn’t an MEP, so he would have real problems influencing that group inside of parliament if it was part of ALDE.
Three, the anti-immigration stuff. Like most parties in Italy apart from those on the far-right, Five Star’s stance on immigration is all over the shop. Grillo infamously tweeted that the mayor of Rome should step down and allow for an election “before Rome is swamped by rats, rubbish and illegal immigrants.” He later that same day altered that tweet to read “illegal immigrant camps run by the mafia.” Even with Grillo, there is a line to be walked here, between populist impulses and the quasi-liberal feelings of most of its members (78% of Five Star members wanted to join ALDE).
I really think that ALDE could have helped shape Five Star into something more coherent than what it has been to date. But they clearly didn’t see their ability to do so as being in the range of possibility. Given this lack of faith in their own message and influence, perhaps ALDE were right to reject Five Star after all. What this says about European liberalism is very, very bleak if so.