Can The Five Star Movement Join The Socialists and Democrats Group?

The Five Stars are house-hunting in Europe, and have a lot of uncomfortable baggage along.

Five Star Movement president Giuseppe Conte
Five Star Movement President, Giuseppe Conte, speaking at the European Parliament. European Parliament from EU, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

What, apart from its name, does the Five Star Movement (M5S) in its present form have in common with the idealistic, complex — and perhaps somewhat naive — creation of a 2009 protest movement led by the then very popular, hard-hitting, comedian specialized in political satire Beppe Grillo? Very little indeed. 

And why will it be difficult for all those involved in selling the idea that M5S can now funtion as a reliable partner in a left-leaning group at European Parliamentary level, to convince their voters that at national level there will be coherence? Does this choice mean that both the Democratic Party (PD) and the Five Stars risk losing as much as they gain in terms of voter loyalty?

To answer all these questions we need to take a step back and refresh our memories on the evolution of the Movement. In a nutshell, the M5S was founded in September 2009, when Grillo presented a program based on the principles of direct democracy as an evolution of representative democracy. The idea was that citizens would no longer delegate their rights and duties to political parties who, in Grillo’s view, are there to serve the interests of lobby groups and financial powers rather than those of their electorate. The Movement also wanted to create an innovative collective intelligence via the Internet. In fact, its political discourse often refers to the Internet as a solution to Italy’s many social, economic and environmental problems. 

M5S caused a stir in Italian politics and the establishment parties found themselves playing catch-up. In three years, it became a force to be reckoned with. Themes like safeguarding the environment, the direct participation of citizens, forms of digital democracy, initiatives for better quality of life, and greater social justice are key. From the economic point of view, it embraced the theories of de-growth, the creation of so-called ‘green jobs’, and the rejection of polluting and in their view not urgent Grandi Opere (literally Big Projects).

But the Movement’s noble idealism and the competence of the visionary Casaleggio soon started to wobble when reality kicked in through misunderstandings, egoism, ignorance of political institutions and of the law itself, months spent over issues such as same-sex marriage, migration from the African continent, the acceptance of the Dublin Agreement on the responsibility of the country of entry of refugees to the EU.

Be careful what you wish for and, even more, what you promise might be a good admonition to the M5S organization and to its followers. Reading up on its journey from voice of protest to political party within the framework of the rigid structures of the Italian political machine, it seems as if the very organizers weren’t sure what they were creating and weren’t expecting to be held answerable to the electorate they created it for. Grillo genuinely believed that he and most of Italy were reading from the same page of the hymn-sheet.

Who did the Movement attract?

At the beginning, Grillo was unwilling to form political alliances or to be characterized like any of the older political entities. The M5S had what seemed to be a left-wing stance on some issues and a right-wing stance on others. Political observer Paolo Natale says that in the first years of the party’s major success, around 2012, the M5S was made up of mainly younger highly educated people who held left-wing political stances, people searching for alternative ways of achieving good administration, high-quality public transport, green spaces, tackling crime. Some of the rules of M5S include the acceptance that politics is a temporary service: no one can run for office more than twice meaning politics must not become a career. It also rejects campaign contributions and M5S candidates must not have even a shdow of a criminal record.

The growth of M5S was meteoric by Italian standards. In the general election held in March 2018 it became the largest single party, with 32.7% of the vote and 227 seats in the Chamber. It entered into coalition talks with the center-left PD. Matteo Renzi (then PD Secretary and now leader of Italia Viva) rejected the deal, so the M5S turned to the right-wing League. The talks resulted in the proposal for a so-called ‘Government of Change’ under the leadership of Giuseppe Conte, a law professor close to the M5S. A poll following the election backed this move, as 56% of the Five Star Movement’s voters preferred a government coalition with the League. while 22% preferred a coalition with a centre-left coalition led by the Democrats. Yet, after Salvini’s suprising political suicide in the summer of 2019, a second Conte executive was formed with the Democrats. Today, Draghi is the head of a coalition government made up of both center-left and center-right parties, but the Five Star Movement still has difficulties coming to an agreement with any of them.

The Five Star Movement’s position in Europe

In order to achieve direct democracy, the M5S chose its Italian and European parliamentary candidates through online voting by registered members of Beppe Grillo’s blog. Through Rousseau, a web app, registered users discuss, approve or reject legislative proposals that are then submitted in the Parliament by the M5S elected representatives. The choice to support the abolition of a law against immigrants was taken online even if the final decision was against the opinions of Grillo and Casaleggio. The partnership with the UK Independence Party (UKIP) was also decided by online voting.

The M5S has often been critical of the politics of the European Union and the Euro, but like on other issues its position is at times ambiguous and opportunistic. When its activists were given a limited-choice online referendum to choose a group for the party 78% of participating activists voted for the Eurosceptic EFDD.

In January 2017, the M5S tried to change its group affiliation inside the European Parliament, moving from the EFDD to the ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe). Despite the initial optimism, ALDE leader Guy Verhofstadt refused the M5S admission to the group due to insufficient guarantees on a common position on European integration. Grillo blamed this rejection on the establishment.

The M5S’s position on immigration has also been ambiguous. In 2016 Grillo wrote in his blog that “all illegal immigrants should be expelled from Italy, that Schengen should be temporarily suspended in the event of a terrorist attack, and that the Dublin Regulation on point of entry responsibility” should be revised. In 2017, Luigi Di Maio, who would lead the M5S in the 2018 election, called for an immediate stop to the “sea-taxi service” bringing migrants to Europe. Di Maio also stated that he supported a referendum for Italy to leave the Eurozone. However, he rejected this referendum proposal in January 2018, stating that the “European Union is the home of the M5S.”

Recent performance in Europe

In the 2019 European Parliament election, the Five Star Movement saw a decline in its vote share and the number of seats held. Looking back at the 2014 European election the party won 21.2% of the vote and 17 seats; while in the 2019 election, the party won 17.1% of the vote and 14 seats. The League surpassed them in terms of vote share and seats by a large margin. After the result, the transparency of the Rousseau platform was questioned and party leader Di Maio was criticized by officials. He called a vote of confidence in his leadership which he won with the support of 80% of members. He pledged to reform the M5S into a more traditional political party.

More hiccups followed when Di Maio resigned and was replaced by Vito Crimi. On last January 26, Conte resigned as Prime Minister. The debate over whether to support a government led by Economist Mario Draghi  caused a split in the party and saw the expulsion of M5S parliamentarians who voted against the former ECB President. Then, in August of this year, Conte was elected head of the Five Star Movement with 93% in favor.

How will the Five Star Movement electorate see their party’s position in Europe?

The M5S has been knocking on EU’s doors and is not being given the welcome they’d expected. Past anti-European stances on immigration, toying with proposing the abolition of the Euro, disruption caused by No Tav, flirting with Nigel Farage, and so on, have not been forgotten by the decision makers. At present there is an ongoing elaboration of Conte’s proposals and his ‘new-broom sweeps clean’ approach.

And waiting in the wings are a populist, eurosceptic, anti-immigration far-right League that M5S had no problem getting into bed with and a pro-European coalition with the centre-left Democratic Party. At the moment, developments suggest they will opt for this latter party.

Can M5S be trusted in Europe and can it and the PD coexist under the same umbrella at European level? And what will this mean for national level politics? Will voters accept what for many observers is just opportunistic calculating, exactly what the M5S pledged to fight against? Will they, too, be pragmatic and say “It’s politics, get on with it and solve some of the country’s problems?”

Angela Mauro’s headline in her Huffington Post blog reads that “Part of the PD group does not want M5S in the Socialist block.” She also points out that M5S’s hurry to get affiliated may be due to the deadline for nominations in positions that they aspire to and that are more accessible if one belongs to a group and is not a mere Non-Inscrit, with little of no chance of essential backing

Conte recently pointed out in a Facebook post “With the new statute, the Five Star Movement can count on a new structure, new tools, new roles, with useful new rules to regulate the internal structure and external relationships.Today’s vote is not an end but a beginning.” All new except the name.

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