Listening to Italy
As others see us
Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, who topped the poll in the UK’s European elections with 28% of the vote, and David Cameron, whose Conservative Party trailed in third place behind Labour with 24.5%, entertained the Italian press last month. Farage has formed a European group with Italy’s Beppe Grillo and his M5S (the Italian Five Star Movement) and this has been a particular source of fascination and fun.
Nigel Farage led the EFD (Europe of Freedom and Democracy) group in the previous 7th European Parliament of 2009 – 2014. The political complexion of these groups or alliances are predictable at the most populated end: The largest, the EPP (European People’s Party) is roughly conservative and has 221 MEPs, while the next largest, the S&D (Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats) has 191. A group has to comprise members of 7 countries. Apart from being part of a group large enough to wield influence and power, the attraction of being a member of a group is that they are able to obtain funding. In this and in the last parliament there are seven groups, plus the NIs, the Non-Inscrits. The NIs are MEPs of different political complexions who were not able or willing to be part of a group. Thy are not eligible for funding. Current NIs include Marine Le Pen’s party and the European National Front. This time the seven groups have all lost MEP numbers, while the NIs have grown from 30 to 52.
Beppe Grillo leader of M5S, fielded candidates in the elections for the first time. He was confident that he could not only have a landslide victory but also make up an autonomous group within the Euro Parliament. Before the voting he bragged on television (reported in La Repubblica on 20 May) that he was going to achieve a wipe-out similar to the last days of Pompeii! He was then extremely rude about Premier Matteo Renzi calling him a “bamboccio”, which roughly translates as a fat little idiot. When his predicted landslide only resulted in 17 seats, he had no chance of running his own European group. He put the blame, according to newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano, on pensioners who didn’t want change, gerrymandering and journalists.
One curiosity of M5S is that it is a Movement, not a party. Grillo directs the policy firmly, generally through his blogs and he views the occasional emailing of members for their votes as making the Movement extremely democratic. But members are not allowed to express their views publicly. For example, no member can appear on TV to give interviews. Members have been voted out of the Movement for infringing rules. One of the 20 Points guiding the Movement is to impose anti-corruption laws. Grillo is very anti-fraud and sees M5S as the only “clean” party in Italy. For this reason he refuses to go into coalition with any party.
After the election, Nigel Farage looked to reconstitute his group on the strength of his 24 MEPs. At this point the parties all haggle and look for shared interests. Farage avoided pairing again with the Italian Lega Nord the nationalist and separatist group, whose leadership was recently proved to be defrauding the party on a grand scale. He discussed an alliance with Beppe Grillo over a dinner.
The Italian press and many members of Grillo’s Movement were unenthusiastic and/or horrified by mention of Farage. Marcus Traviglio is the founder of Il Fatto Quotidiano, a paper that survives even though it doesn’t receive the usual government subsidy. It has supported Grillo and his Movement.
Travaglio was emphatically anti-Farage. On 1 June an Il Fatto article by Andrea Scanzi expressed his disappointment and disapproval of a Grillo blog that was whitewashing Farage to be “almost a Gandhi”. Travaglio mentioned Farage’s party’s tendency to attract reactionary supporters. He particularly mentioned the controversial UKIP members (now ex-members) infamous for their florid and risible racist, homophobic and anti-female pronouncements. He then went on to mention what he considered to be a fraudulent side to Farage. Referring to the way that he minimises his taxes by channelling his finances through the Isle of Man. Travaglio recognises that the liaison with Farage was a strategic choice, a marriage of convenience, but Scanzi quotes him throwing his hands up to say that Grillo should have tried harder, “was it Farage or nothing?”
Members of M5S were profoundly unhappy about the choice of Farage. They expressed the feeling that their vote, which was heavily in favour of a link with Farage, was made under pressure. One went as far as to say that the Movement was finished. Il Fatto said that many wanted to abstain from their Grillo-requested vote. Farage was in Travaglio’s words an “error” and there was surprise that Grillo had not made an alliance with their more natural partners, the Greens.
La Repubblica’s anti Farage strategy was more colourful. On more than one occasion they used the same smiling and carefree photo of Farage that had a pointed quote embedded in the picture. It said “I admire Vladimir Putin, above all for how he has managed the question of Syria”. It sat under a bold, unmissable heading which said “ Anti gay, sexist, xenophobic, here are the new allies of Grillo in Europe”. Beppe Grillo made a little joke after having said that there was a lot that he and Farage shared in common, he had a good sense of humour etc. “If”, he said he doesn’t succeed in Italy he “will come over to London” to join Nigel Farage!
La Repubblica published an article on 18 June in which it was announced that Grillo and Farage had agreed to form a eurosceptic group in the European Parliament. The name changed slightly to EFDD (Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy) but Farage is the leader with a M5S deputy, David Borrelli. Farage’s group is the seventh and smallest group. La Repubblica’s provocative reporting included a short insert which said “Read the English Press: Farage risks a year in jail”…. for fraud. Grillo, now clearly inconsistent in his attitude to financial rectitude, is reported in La Repubblica (1 July) saying that the EU must not give any more money to Italy because it disappears into the hands of the Mafia and the Camorra fraudsters.
David Cameron has also provided column inches but the implication throughout was that he is a loser. Farage is a chancer, a successful fixer even. But Cameron is unable to grasp how to confront and work positively with Europe or even do this on his home territory, “England” as it is usually termed.
“Cameron threatens” was a headline in Tiscali online as he announced his anti Juncker campaign. An interesting article in Corriere della Sera (Antonio Armellini, 14 June 2014) suggested that Cameron had not understood that the most successful way to have an impact in Europe was to quietly work towards gaining consensus. His move in 2009 to take his party out of the leading EPP conservative Group had been the start of weakening the UK’s standing in Europe. Force, or the “No” of Thatcher’s Iron Lady tactics worked only for her. The consensus for Juncker clearly wasn’t universal but Cameron’s “arrogant and impatient” manner and his lack of “intellectual lucidity and political force” were counterproductive. The article noted that the ghost of Margaret Thatcher had underpinned the development of Europe, such was her influence. But Cameron’s transparent need to strut for his own political advantage in the UK were clearly recognised and he was easily isolated and even ridiculed.
More ridicule followed when The Daily Mail featured in a Corriere della Sera piece about Juncker on 27 June. Corriere reported that the Mail told its two million readers that “Juncker drinks brandy for breakfast”. Even the FT was quoted as saying that not only was he a bad organiser but worked “perhaps with the help of an extra glass of wine”. How many other UK politicians can be said to, in Private Eye’s words have “lunched well”?
There was a small, subtle dig at the rigidity of the UK in Corriere’s report of the leaders’ summit dinner at Ypres. The ceremony and pageant was compared to something that the UK would recognise from its colonial history. The Italian press later published two articles from UK sources that tried to put a more positive pro-UK point of view. Neither quite hit the intended point because they seemed to avoid the reality that the UK is isolated and disregarded. La Repubblica quoted John Peet of the Economist who proposes solutions to Europe: he co-wrote a book entitled: Unhappy Union: how the Euro crisis and Europe can be fixed. Then John Lloyd the FT’s contributing editor) predicted that Cameron would not only be ultimately successful in Europe but would win the next UK election outright and that the Scots would not leave The Union.
This snippet from La Repubblica of 29 June neatly puts the UK in its place:-
JUST LIKE ROONEY
Mention of the humiliation that defines the premier David Cameron as a loser has been made (during the time of the World Cup) in German papers who can see a comparison between him and Wayne Rooney, the footballing symbol of worn-out Britannia.