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The Italian Five Star Movement and Brexit Britain: From Love to Friendship

The Italian Five Star Movement and Brexit Britain: From Love to Friendship

by Edoardo Bressanelli (King’s College London)

 

“The sooner the better:  let us destroy the Eurozone and get out of the Euro immediately”: this unequivocal statement, commenting on the implications of Brexit for Italy, appeared in late 2015 on the blog of Beppe Grillo – the founder of the Five Star Movement (M5S), which has now emerged as the undisputed winner of the general elections held in Italy on March 4.

On the day of the Brexit referendum, Grillo’s blog further expressed its admiration for Brexit, advising Italy to make similar demands on the EU as in David Cameron had done in his renegotiation. At the same time, however, while the position of the M5S was critical (towards the EU) and supportive (of the UK’s choices), it fell short of advocating Italexit. This marked a clear difference with the League – the other winner of Sunday’s Italian elections – whose leader Matteo Salvini cheerfully tweeted: “Thanks UK, it is now upon us. #Brexit”.

While the fact that “the English people are moving to self-determination” was widely admired by the M5S and, particularly, by its founder, the Movement’s political strategy took a different twist. The most remarkable development in the M5S’ position towards the EU was the attempt to join the most Europhile group in the European Parliament. In January 2017, the M5S delegation tried to leave the alliance with Nigel Farage’s UKIP to enter a partnership with Guy Verhofstadt’s Liberals.

The latter’s veto ended it prematurely, but Grillo’s failed attempt signalled the willingness of the Movement to abandon its role in opposition – shouting against the elites and Brussels – and its readiness to gain a more prominent governmental standing. Back in Italy, the blow of the failed constitutional referendum of December 2016 and the resignation of Matteo Renzi had just opened a new window of opportunity, which the M5S was keen to exploit. Incidentally, opinion polls started to indicate that the M5S was the party that Italians supported the most.

In this context, Luigi Di Maio’s statement during the electoral campaign that it was no longer the time for Italy to leave the Euro could be interpreted as a further step in this strategy of ‘normalisation’. True, the referendum remains the “extrema ratio”, but dialogue with the EU elites has by now replaced opposition to the EU elites. In this sense, the positioning of the M5S resembles more the critical attitude of Green or left parties, than the outright rejection of the EU by right-wing populist parties.

The lesser appeal of Brexit as a model for Italy finds further confirmation in the electoral manifesto of the Movement, which rules out Italexit if the Economic and Monetary Union is changed. Monetary sovereignty is the option if reform proves to be impossible, but ‘reform’ is broadly conceived to mean a more social Europe, or a more assertive role for the ECB in buying governmental bonds of member states in financial troubles.

As the tone and the position of the M5S towards the EU become more moderate, the chances that the British government will find a new, strong ally in its negotiations with the EU get slimmer. It is true that Luigi di Maio, speaking in London to international investors in early February, re-affirmed that the UK should not be punished in the negotiations, and bilateral relationships with Britain should be strengthened.

Yet he made clear that the foremost interest for Italy in the Brexit process is to “protect the hundreds of thousands of Italians currently living in the UK”, and also added that Britain will inevitably lose some of the advantages of membership in the single market.

It suffices to look at the votes of the M5S on Brexit in the European Parliament to notice a significant change in a relatively short time (see Table 1). All members of the M5S voted against the majority in the parliamentary resolution on the outcome of the referendum in June 2016. In the next vote on Brexit – in April 2017, after the triggering of article 50 by the British government – they abstained. Then, in October 2017, on a resolution taking stock of the negotiations – very critical of their (lack of) progress – they voted, instead, with the People’s Party, the Socialists and the Liberals. Finally, on the resolution closing the first phase of the negotiations, in December 2017, the M5S voted once again with the mainstream parties.

Table 1: The M5S and its votes on the Brexit resolutions in the European Parliament

Vote Date M5S: Votes EP: Votes
Outcome of the referendum in the United Kingdom 28.06.2016 (+) 0

(-) 17

(0) 0

(+) 395

(-) 200

(0) 71

Negotiations with the United Kingdom following its notification of withdrawal 05.04.2017 (+) 0

(-) 0

(0) 15

(+) 516

(-) 133

(0) 50

State of play of negotiations with the United Kingdom 03.10.2017 (+) 15

(-) 0

(0) 0

(+) 557

(-) 92

(0) 29

State of play of negotiations with the United Kingdom 13.12.2017 (+) 15

(-) 0

(0) 0

(+) 556

(-) 62

(0) 68

 

It may well be the case, should the M5S form a government, that the spectre of Brexit will be used to push harder for Italian interests in the EU (e.g. reforming the EMU). On the other hand, with its current, more moderate stance on Europe, the M5S is unlikely to press for a referendum on the Euro or other radical steps. Post-Brexit Britain may have thus found a more sympathetic friend in Rome, appreciative of the choice of the British people to ‘take back control’. Yet, this relationship appears to be very different from what the earlier declarations of Grillo would have led one to expect.

 

Edoardo Bressanelli is Senior Lecturer in European Politics at King’s College London. He is currently editing the 2018 edition of Italian Politics (with D. Natali). He is the author of ‘Love, Convenience or Respectability? Understanding the Alliances of the Five Star Movement in the European Parliament’ forthcoming in the Italian Political Science Review (with M. de Candia).

 

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