Trans-Europe Express: 5 Star fails on immigration

Sent out every Friday at noon, Trans-Europe Express gives you an insider's view of the most important coverage from across the EURACTIV media network, its media partners and much more.

It was a wipeout. Failing to win a single contest in 1,004 local elections in Italy on Sunday (11 June), Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star Movement was quickly assigned to the list of declining populist parties that began with Geert Wilders’ defeat in March’s Dutch poll.

Said to be inspired by the “Trump Effect”, Italian voters gave their votes to the centre-right and centre-left, going so far as to post a Lega Nord/Forza Italia coalition victory in Grillo’s hometown, Genoa, a traditionally left-wing city.

The one-time comedian was quick to write off the defeat as a symptom of growing pains.

“The M5S was the most present political force in this electoral round. The other parties camouflaged themselves, above all the PD which presented itself in around half the constituencies the M5S did,” he told Ansa. “The results are a sign of slow but inexorable growth.

Grillo might be right. 5 Star is no ordinary populist party. Indeed, calling it populist is itself something of a stretch, though the M5S leader has done little to dampen the comparison, given his embrace of Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, and, umm, Donald Trump.

More importantly, 5 Star has managed to fill a void in Italian politics that was opened up by the collapse of the country’s left, particularly that created by the fragmentation of the Communist Party in the early 1990s, of which Grillo was once a member.

Adding a healthy dose of environmentalism and anarchism, and a typically American embrace of the democratic possibilities opened up by the Internet, made the 5 Star Movement an especially distinct beast, with little ideologically in common with other populist parties such as Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland.

The tone of the party’s politics has always been counter-cultural, albeit hippie-like, sans the labour emphasis of the older Italian left. Given that Grillo and party co-founder Gianroberto Casaleggio were both baby boomers, it made sense.

They were, in fact, ageing hippies, who, in classic 1960s fashion, had held onto most of the contrarian ideologies of their generation.

That cultural mix is what made 5 Star such a potent and appealing, Zeitgeist-like force, particularly in the context of the economic crisis created by the decadence of Silvio Berlusconi’s disastrous four terms in office, during which the party was born.

5 Star didn’t have to offer much in the way of a concrete political programme. It just had to emphasise the anti-establishment values associated with Italy’s declining left, and the culture of its post-war heyday.

The problem with this, and the one which makes it less than competitive with Italy’s right, is its anti-immigration stance, one that Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi resurrected this week, calling for a moratorium on migration to the capital.

A former advocate of Rome’s profound diversity, the scandal-ridden Raggi could not help but sound a bit insincere, smarting, as 5 Star was, from its electoral performance on Sunday.

Hence the significance of the electoral resurgence of the Lega Nord and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. Both took an estimated 13% in Sunday’s vote, in no small part due to the consistency of their historic antipathy towards immigration.

Decidedly nationalist parties, and also avowedly pro-business, the Lega Nord and Forza Italia are also less ideologically contradictory than 5 Star.

Their return to prominence, at 5 Star’s expense, helps highlight the ideological inconsistencies of Grillo’s party, and why immigration is a core weakness.

Hating Roma, for example, is not normally associated with environmentalism. Even in Italy, where fascism always indulged a mix of left and right.

If 5 Star continues to haemorrhage voters to its competitors, it will be impossible to ignore why.

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