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Ukip vs "The Hof": Why Italy's Five Star Movement was rejected by EU liberals

The attempt by the liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt to form a controversial alliance with the populist Italian movement has failed, giving Ukip cause for celebration.

The United Kingdom Independence Party breathed a sigh of relief in Brussels last night before toasting the apparent self-destruction of one of its great euro-bugbears – the “arch-federalist” Guy Verhofstadt.

Ukip had plenty to celebrate. They had snatched a resounding victory from the jaws of defeat. It looks like 2017 is carrying on where 2016 left off.

Earlier on Monday, it seemed as if millions of euros of EU funding for Ukip and its allies could be at risk.  

Beppe Grillo, the Italian comedian turned populist politician, had caused a rift among Brussel's eurosceptic factions.

At his instigation, the Five Star Movement (M5S) was voting on whether to leave the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) group in the European Parliament.

In an online “referendum”, the M5S voted by about 70% to leave the EFDD and join the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group. ALDE is led by former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and boasts exactly one Lib Dem MEP.

European Parliament groups are strange beasts to the uninitiated. Frankly, the uninitiated is most of Europe outside of the European Parliament.

The idea is to band together national political parties of similar viewpoints into a pan-European alliance, which then, if it meets the criteria, qualifies for extra speaking time and, crucially, EU cash.

To form a group, you need 25 MEPs from seven EU member states. Back in 2014, riding high on the wave of anti-EU sentiment sweeping Europe, Farage and Grillo had sealed their alliance over a curry in the centre of Brussels. The restaurant in question is now under new management.

If M5S had left the EFDD, it would have 27 MEPs representing seven countries. Three of those MEPs represented one country each, meaning that just one defection could theoretically trigger the group’s collapse.

Last year, the EFDD received 3.8 million euros in EU cash, which doesn’t include MEPs’ £84,000 salary or generous expenses. So, it was no surprise that Farage issued a stinging rebuke after the online vote.

He said: “Beppe Grillo will now join the euro-fanatic establishment of ALDE which supports TTIP, mass immigration and an EU Army, but opposes direct democracy. Five Star have joined the EU establishment.”

Farage had a point. At first, and even second, glance it was a strange match. Verhofstadt, who is the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator, is an ardent europhile.

He is renowned for his full-throated calls for an EU army. He wrote a book called the United States of Europe. He regularly attacked Farage with impassioned pro-EU sallies, which did quite well on YouTube but not as well as Nigel’s.

Grillo claimed that M5S needed to quit the group because Ukip had achieved its “main policy objective” in Brexit, but it was more likely to be about securing future funding.

With Brexit eventually set to rob the EFDD of 24 Ukip MEPs, making it vulnerable to collapse, it made sense for Grillo’s bunch to try and forge a new alliance.

But why on Earth was Verhofstadt getting into bed with or even flirting with Grillo, a man who repeatedly rails against Europe and wants a referendum on Italy’s membership of the euro?

Especially as Verhofstadt, back in 2014, had said that no pro-European group could ever join forces with M5S.

The answer was depressingly banal. With the M5S’s 17 MEPs, ALDE could reclaim its traditional “kingmaker” spot as the third largest group in the European Parliament. In the 2014 elections, it humiliatingly lost that status to the Tory-led European Conservatives and Reformists group.

But the U-turn will cost the man Farage once described as the “High Priest of Euro-Federalism”.

Only last Friday, Verhofstadt launched his campaign to be the next president of the European Parliament.

In a video that is haunting him less than four days after it was filmed, Verhofstadt vowed to stand against the populists threatening Europe.

For many in Brussels, Beppe Grillo is just such a eurosceptic populist and Verhofstadt’s candidacy is looking decidedly shaky ahead of the 17 January vote.

Incredibly “the Hof” pressed ahead with plans for the unholy marriage. Even though the terms of the marriage contract had been drawn up, the new alliance failed last night. Verhofstadt said there was “not enough common ground” between the two groups.

But that line wasn’t fooling anyone. Unsurprisingly, his staunchly pro-Brussels members had mutinied. The French, Estonian and other liberals began making their discontent clear. MEP Marielle de Sarnez, who leads the French delegation of ALDE, called the proposal an "unnatural alliance," when speaking to Contexte, a French political news site, on Sunday. “We are the most pro-European of formations, while the Five Star Movement is against the euro,” she added.

When it was apparent that Verhofstaft could not win a vote on the union, which would have been held today, he ditched the pact without the formal vote.

Verhofstadt had gambled and lost badly. He has lost credibility, political capital and any real chance of becoming the European Parliament President.

He was the third favourite and was tipped as a dark horse candidate. He could have won if enough MEPs turned away from the two largest groups, the European People’s Party and Socialists and Democrats. But last night, he was being ridiculed for attempting and failing the kind of Brussels backroom deal he railed against.

In the bars around the parliament in Brussels, Ukip MEPs and their staffers literally couldn’t believe their luck.

“I’d love to tell you there was some kind of masterplan, some genius plot, but there wasn’t,” one told me.

Verhofstadt, derided by Ukip members as a “nutter”, had made a serious miscalculation.

Farage had reportedly texted Grillo after his attempted defection. He told him that ALDE were no fans of direct democracy and the partnership wouldn’t last long.

As it panned out the divorce happened before the marriage. Ukip is spending today welcoming Grillo’s prodigal MEPs back into the fold.  


James Crisp is a Brussels-based journalist who is the news editor of

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”