5 April 2018

The 4 March vote shook Italian politics like an earthquake. One month after, in a redrawn political landscape, the Italian President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella is this week meeting the newly formed parliamentary groups. Discussions with the different forces will help Mattarella evaluate whether a majority could emerge in support of a new government.

Since an agreement between the Five Star Movement (M5S) and Matteo Salvini’s centre-right coalition signed off the election of the parliament’s new speakers last month, speculation has been mounting that the unusual pact could provide the basis for the future government too. Although it is far from certain at this stage, commentators believe a deal could be built around some key programmatic points common to both the Movement and the largest force within the centre-right coalition: the anti-immigration League.

Among the positions shared by both parties would be their Euroscepticism. Yet, in an interview with Le Monde in February, the M5S’s political leader characterised the party as pro-European. Italian daily Il Foglio has recently even suggested that Five Star leaders would be considering joining forces with Macron’s En Marche at the next European elections – although this hypothesis is largely speculative at this stage and was rejected by both the interested parties.

Where does the Movement really stand on the issue of European integration? An analysis of the party’s manifesto on the EU can go some way in shedding light on this question.

Suggestions that the M5S would be a Eurosceptic force are not totally ungrounded. It does not refrain in its manifesto from bashing the EU, particularly in the economic domain, where it calls for an overhaul of the system of European economic governance, with a radical shift away from austerity measures. Criticism largely focuses on the set-up of the current Banking Union; the party is staunchly against the (mainly supervisory) powers given to the European Central Bank over recent years.

In the absence of an acceptable compromise on changing the system of economic governance, the Five Stars foresee “a rollback of sovereignty in the economic/monetary field,” with the introduction in the treaties of “specific technical, economic and judicial procedures to allow member states to leave the monetary union or to remain outside it through a permanent opt-out.” Such a stance could undoubtedly be associated with a certain degree of Euroscepticism.

However, the Movement’s manifesto makes clear that a rollback of sovereignty in the economic/monetary field should only be considered as a last option. As a first option instead, it calls for a review of the functions assigned to the ECB with the aim of “building a solid system of protections for bank deposits, based on the unlimited guarantee of a central bank as a lender of last resort”; a proposal which would be anathema to those opposing further European integration.

Beyond the economic domain, it becomes even more apparent how the Eurosceptic label does not easily fit the M5S’s profile. This is possibly best revealed by its manifesto’s commitments in the field of migration policy. Here, the stated objective is nothing less than making immigration a competence of the EU, which is argued should take on a greater role, well beyond emergency measures: again, this is a taboo for any Eurosceptic party.

Ultimately, the M5S’s stand on the question of European integration is well summarised by their proposals for institutional reforms in the EU. The party have consistently advocated the need for a stronger European Parliament vis-à-vis other institutions, particularly the Council, proposing to get rid “in substance of the intergovernmental method.” They also support removing unanimity requirements in the Council to strengthen the decisional power of the EU in matters as diverse as social, redistributive, welfare and migration policies.

This is hardly the profile of a typical Eurosceptic force. The Movement in fact advocates not so much less Europe as much as a different Europe; one based on solidarity rather than rules, and where democratic checks and accountability are strengthened, be it at the national or supranational level – hence, for instance, their support for enhancing national parliaments’ control over trade policy, effectively making all EU trade agreements mixed agreements by default.

It would be problematic to consider this a Eurosceptic position per se; unless all parties calling for a reform of the EU, no matter its content, are equally labelled as Eurosceptic. But there is an aspect to the Movement’s European policy which could still create headaches in Brussels: its political malleability and hence unpredictability.

The M5S is a chameleonic political animal. As an opposition force, it has been able to win the support of apparently irreconcilable sections of the national electorate, often by avoiding taking a clear stance on the most divisive issues. While supposedly a socially progressive party, for instance, in the previous Italian parliamentary term it voted against a law institutionalising civil unions in the country.

On European integration this broader ambivalence is reflected by support for policy proposals that appear to openly contradict, or at least rest uneasily with one another.

It is difficult, as an example, to envisage how Five Stars’ demands substantially to reduce the EU budget could be made compatible with their support for establishing a European citizenship income or making immigration a truly European competence. The Commission has made clear in its contribution to discussions on the next Multiannual Financial Framework that a full EU border management system would alone require around €150 billion over seven years, currently the equivalent of an annual EU budget.

Similarly, the party is a vocal supporter of greater economic burden-sharing at the EU level. Yet, they reject future – in fact to some extents even current – EU rules and obligations that are likely to come with it. It is naïve, not to say outright unrealistic, to think that countries generally cautious toward greater integration like the Netherlands, but even a more integrationist country as Germany, could accept such a proposal. The Movement’s opposition to putting greater economic constraints on member states would be a real obstacle to plans of a Eurozone reform.

On European integration, as on other issues, the M5S appears to take a stance relying on a delicate balance between contradictory drives. While this has enabled the party to win and retain the support of an electorate with substantially diverse preferences, it also makes it an extremely unpredictable force, prone to rapid policy changes dictated by electoral convenience.

Just one year ago, the party leaders supported a referendum on Italy’s membership of the Eurozone. They now reassure Italy’s place lies firmly in the EU and the Euro area; a policy shift suggested by the necessity to stand out as a respectable force in an attempt to win the support of moderate voters in the context of the recent national election.

The M5S cannot currently be considered simply as a Eurosceptic force. Given its inherent malleability however, it remains difficult to rule out that it could adopt a more EU-hostile stance in the near future. A government alliance with the Eurosceptic League, if this becomes a reality, could contribute to stirring the party in such a direction and would certainly raise serious concerns in Brussels.