GENOA, Italy ― Five centuries after one native of this port town ventured west into the Atlantic in hopes of opening up global trade, another is working hard to shut it down.
Christopher Columbus is world-famous for inadvertently stumbling on the Americas as he looked for a faster trade route to Asia. Beppe Grillo is not well-known outside Italy ― at least not yet ― but he and his Five Star Movement party are questioning Italy’s place in the European Union and pushing the idea of leaving, just as United Kingdom voters decided to do last summer.
The new interest in closing borders is alarming European leaders who for decades have operated under the premise that more trade and more interaction between countries was good not just for the continent as a whole but for individual nations as well.
“No country in history has prospered by looking inward and retracting itself from the world,” Norway’s defense minister, Ine Eriksen Soreide, said recently.
This turning inward versus remaining open, nevertheless, is the underlying tension beneath the surface as Italy hosts G-7 leaders from the world’s largest democratic economies ― among them, President Donald Trump, leader of the biggest economy in the group but whose own opinions on trade appear closer to those of Grillo than the consensus view of the other six politicians.
“It’s part of the crisis of democracy,” said Lucia Annunziata, a longtime Italian journalist and now the editor-in-chief of HuffPost Italia. “There is a sense in Europe that we’re in a quagmire.”
With parliamentary elections coming up in the United Kingdom, France and Germany in the coming weeks, it’s not likely that G-7 leaders will agree to a joint statement of any consequence at the conclusion of their meeting Saturday. And even if one were to emerge, it’s not likely to affect internal politics much in Italy, which will hold Europe’s next potentially map-altering election next year.
Great Britain voted to leave the European Union last summer. Pro-EU candidates have since won in Austria, the Netherlands and, most recently, France, where political novice Emmanuel Macron defeated anti-immigrant, anti-EU politician Marine Le Pen.
Yet while much of establishment Europe let out a sigh of relief with Macron’s win, a victory of Grillo’s Five Star Movement could throw the future of the continent’s decades-old common market into doubt once more. Italy has the fourth-largest economy in Europe, with a big manufacturing base and 61 million people.
Grillo has made his preference clear. The former TV comedian built his political standing by staging “V-Day” rallies, which take their name from an Italian expletive, all over Italy. The morning after Trump’s surprise presidential election win, Grillo posted a video on YouTube praising Trump and lashing out at mainstream politicians, economic elites and journalists.
“Mainstream media talked about Trump in exactly the same way they talked about us,” he said according to a translation prepared by the Wall Street Journal. “We are the real heroes. I am a hero. I experiment, I put together misfits, because the world will belong to misfits. ... And the real imbeciles, populists and demagogues are the journalists, intellectuals who are totally enslaved to the great powers.”
Relationship With A European Community
On every Italian public building are two flags. One is Italy’s national ensign, with the familiar green, white and red vertical stripes ― and the other, the same size and flying at the same height, displays a blue field and a circle of 12 gold stars.
The European Union, as it is known today, was created 60 years ago as the European Economic Community after the Second World War and as a tool to help prevent a third. Countries that freely traded with one another, the theory went, were less likely to get into shooting wars with one another.
For six decades, that theory has held. The common market worked in tandem with the NATO military alliance, and Europe’s economies grew ever more interdependent. In the 1990s, the countries took a major step and agreed to use a common currency, the euro, as a way of further streamlining cross-border banking and trade.
That, for many Italians, was when the problems began ― in their view, the replacement of the lira with the euro in 2002 made everyday life far more expensive. They blame their own elected leaders for failing to negotiate fairer terms for their exchange rate.
“It was as if all of a sudden we had to run faster and faster to keep up with an economy like Germany’s,” said Alice Salvatore, a Grillo supporter and an elected member of a regional parliament in northwest Italy.
As the years passed, voters vented by electing a populist who was willing to vent along with them, billionaire Silvio Berlusconi. He shrugged off scandals for two decades in and out of the prime minister’s office while failing to address a stagnant economy; chronically high unemployment, particularly in southern Italy; and what many Italians saw as a degraded quality of life.
Enter Grillo, the comedian-turned-political activist who has capitalized on voter anger with his Five Star Movement. Like presidential candidates Trump and Bernie Sanders in the United States, Grillo has blamed “elites” for looking after themselves while ignoring the masses.
Movimento Cinque Stelle, as the party is known in Italy, now boasts over 2,000 officeholders, including 130 members of the Italian Parliament. He and his party fought hard against a voter referendum in December ― pushed by then-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi ― that would have given that office more authority to institute economic reforms. When the referendum failed, Renzi stepped down, leaving the top job to caretaker Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni until new elections are held.
Those have not been set yet, but would likely come no later than next March. Given the fractured state of Italian politics, with none of the major parties likely to win a majority of seats, the next election could easily give Grillo’s Five Star Movement a plurality in Parliament ― which, if Grillo stays true to his word, could in turn mean an “Italy exit” vote not long after.
Such an idea would again pit Europe’s leading economists and trade experts against angry populists, as it did in Britain last year, with an uncertain result.
HuffPost Italia’s Annunziata said working-class people in Italy have no reason to trust elites anymore. “The so-called experts ― they haven’t delivered a solution,” she said.
Future Of The Five Star Movement
Grillo may be the famous name and face that brought the Five Star Movement to prominence, but its future ― if it has one ― is more likely to be someone like Salvatore, the 35-year-old former English teacher elected to Liguria’s regional parliament in 2015.
While Grillo exploited his TV fame to win attention, Salvatore instead showcases the movement’s idealism. She explained how all elected Five Star Movement officials are expected to donate half of their salaries to a fund that helps ordinary Italians ― a project that so far has collected some $24 million over three years. She personally gave back $45,000 last year, she said. “This is very revolutionary because usually in Italy politicians take the money,” she said.
Although Grillo posted that video on YouTube praising Trump after his victory, Salvatore is quick to establish some distance. Trump’s militaristic talk, his anti-environmental stances ― Salvatore said she personally wants nothing to do with those.
“The only similarity is that we’re a new phenomenon. It stops there,” she said.
From her corner office in a drab government office building in downtown Genoa, Salvatore explained that her introduction to politics came at age 19, right there in her hometown.
“It all started with the G-8 in 2001,” she said of the annual meeting of the world’s largest democratically run economic powers. (Russia was a member then, but was thrown out after it invaded Crimea in 2014.)
A protester was shot and killed that year. Salvatore remembers it as a defining moment for her when she contrasted what she witnessed in the streets with how it was reported by Italian media outlets, many of which were then and are still today controlled by Berlusconi. And if the situation here was worth protesting 15 years ago, it has only gotten worse. While nearby Milan and other northern Italian towns prosper, Genoa suffers from unemployment and blight on levels similar to places in southern Italy.
“We are sort of a reaction of despair from the people. Or rage from the people,” Salvatore said of the Five Star Movement.
That anger has spread across ideology and views on particular issues ― some oppose accepting more refugees from Syria; others support it, for example. The belief that binds Five Star Movement supporters is that the traditional parties, both liberal and conservative, have ignored them.
“The others are all the same,” said Benedetta Alabardi, a 27-year-old pharmacist in Rome. This is why she supports Grillo, she said, as well as his push to take Italy out of the EU, which she feels is dominated by Germany. “It is Germany at the top, and the rest are slaves,” she said.
Of course, not all Italians are taken with Grillo (who, as it happens, cannot serve as prime minister because of his involuntary manslaughter drunken-driving conviction decades ago for killing a family of three). Italians with higher education levels and in fields dependent on work that crosses borders tend to view him negatively.
“Beppe Grillo is a crazy man like Trump,” laughed Orasti Gionti, a 47-year-old telecommunications consultant.
Others see the Five Star Movement’s vision as unworkably idealistic, and they hope Trump will exert whatever influence he has toward unifying Europe, not tearing it apart by encouraging the nationalistic fervor the continent has spent decades overcoming.
Instead of talking about building a wall with Mexico, for instance, Trump should look for ways to tear down barriers, said Gionti’s co-worker, Alessandro Graziani, also 47. “The president of the United States with old ideas is a problem for all the world,” he said.
Werner Hoyer, a former foreign minister of Germany and now the president of the European Investment Bank, said it is up to the world, or at least America’s traditional allies, to bring Trump around to their point of view.
“We fared extremely well after World War II with this kind of cooperative approach,” Hoyer said. “We must make the case more strongly that any putative advantage of protectionism is short-lived and outweighed by high costs in lower long-term growth opportunities, in particular for weaker economies.”