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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 EurActiv.com

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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