ROME—As the honeymoon of the Donald Trump election is reaching its bitter end—and even before the new American president is sworn into office—Europe’s own motley clan of anti-establishment misfits are on the edge of self-induced implosion.
One striking example is the family feud between French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, her father, whom she’s expelled from her party, and her niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who has sided with the old man.
In fact, even as Marine Le Pen, according to our sources, is on her way to New York, presumably for a meeting with Trump, the influence his election and his presidency will have on the European populists is far from clear. He has no real constituency in Europe, and appears, at best, erratic.
Then again, it would be hard to be a more eccentric political leader than Italy’s Beppe Grillo, the former comedian whose Five Star Movement has rocketed to incredible popularity, built largely on “F*ck Off Day” rallies and anti-euro promises. They have waffled from left to right, often straddling an awkward fence between liberal and conservative ideals.
After Trump’s surprise win, Grillo vowed that the unconventional victory was a good omen for anti-establishment types like himself. “This is a general ‘fuck off,’” Grillo wrote on his popular blog after Trump gave his acceptance speech. “It is those who dare, the obstinate, the barbarians who will take the world forward. We are the barbarians! The real idiots, populists and demagogues are the journalists and the establishment intellectuals.”
In December, he was able to parlay that popularity and anti-establishment fervor into what looked like a viable chance at winning what would have been a first national election. When Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi lost a referendum on reform on Dec. 4, Grillo was among the first to call for early elections, no doubt hoping to ride a populist wave on which polls clearly showed that his candidates would have excelled.
But just over a month later, Grillo’s gang, which enjoys mutual legitimacy in the European Parliament thanks to an alliance with Nigel Farage’s equally anti-Europe UKIP in the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy anti-Europe group, seemed to be going off the rails.
On Monday, he conducted a spontaneous blog vote, asking his party faithful if they should ditch Farage and join the more powerful pro-Europe and far more liberal Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group, a scheme apparently meant to give Grillo some gravitas, which could have easily helped in elections at home.
His faithful voted a resounding 78.5 percent in favor of breaking ties with Farage, which Grillo initiated with a “Dear Nigel” letter to the UKIP leader, stating, “I wish you the best and hope that our paths will cross again, maybe when you will be ambassador of the U.K. to the United States, as advocated by President-elect Trump.”
The move to join such a liberal and pro-Europe group was met with shock in Italy. “Grillo has allied himself in Europe with the most dogged supporters of the euro,” Giorgia Meloni, head of the Italian alt-right Brothers of Italy party, calling him a hypocrite for his long history of “slogans and blog posts that railed against the establishment.”
But Grillo apparently forgot one small and important detail. The ALDE, led by former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, who has his eyes on the presidency of the European Parliament, didn’t really want to be affiliated with a loose cannon like Grillo after all.
Despite Verhofstadt’s reported assurances to Grillo that he should close his eyes and jump, the ALDE establishment instead respectfully declined the overture, claiming “insufficient common ground” and a lack of a plan to reform Europe.
Within 48 hours of his letter to Farage, Grillo was back in the UKIP’s wheelhouse, tail between his legs, under undisclosed circumstances that include the resignation of one of the Five Star’s key leaders, David Borrelli.
Farage, whose UKIP could have easily sunk into financial ruin without the uneasy alliance with Grillo, seemed relieved, despite publicly criticizing Grillo when he left.
Now, the band is back together, at least for the short term, or, more likely, until they each find someone else to run to.
“I am happy to say that any differences between Beppe Grillo’s Five-Star Movement and myself have been resolved in an amicable manner. After a few administrative changes we will, next week in Strasbourg, continue with our work together in the EFDD Group,” Farage said in a statement that glossed over the very public break-up entirely. “The Grillo campaign for a referendum on Italy’s membership of the euro is gaining momentum. I have long admired his work in Italy and wish him well. The anti-Establishment campaign in Europe is really just starting.”
Grillo, taking a page out of Trump’s playbook, responded to the ALDE snub through an online insult, writing on his blog, “Verhofstadt… should be ashamed of himself because, like a coward, he bowed to the pressure from the establishment.”
Now, Grillo must surely be trying to assess the damage his blunder caused. A month ago, he looked set to carry his party to election victory. Now, he is being compared to the clown and comedian he was when he started his political journey. “The damage is done,” one Five Star faithful who voted to leave Farage told The Daily Beast. “I don’t know how we recover from this.”
In fact, the 78 percent of the Five Star Movement members who voted to change from anti-Europe to pro-Europe are now left wondering what just happened. And, more importantly, so are the Five Star European Parliament members who are the public face of Grillo’s ill-advised scheme.
Across Twitter, his “Grillini,” or crickets as his followers call themselves, wondered if the optimism they felt after Trump’s win and Renzi’s defeat had been squandered, or if their aspirations had only been a cruel joke all along.
—with additional reporting from Christopher Dickey in Paris