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.