Members of Beppe Grillo's Five-Star Movement (M5S) have voted to change their party's status in Europe and join the ranks of the pro-EU Alliance of Liberals and Democrats of Europe (ALDE), led by top Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt.
More than 135,000 members were asked to express their preference among three options, which included staying in the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFD) group that they created along with Nigel Farage's Ukip in 2014; renouncing a political group allegiance altogether; or joining ALDE.
More than a third of the membership, around 40,000 people, took part in an online consultation held between 8-9 January. 78.5% of those who voted chose to join ALDE.
This option was Grillo's preference, as described in a post on his blog, the official form of communication between the leader of the movement and its members. The M5S' 17 MEPs represent the second-biggest party group in the 43-member strong EFD, which has a majority of Ukip representatives. With Ukip leaving the parliament after Brexit, the group would lose most of its members and influence.
Grillo emphasised the need for M5S to remain part of a political group to keep influence and funds for their parliamentary work but, according to him, there is no political future for the M5S in its current group. "Staying in EFD means spending the next two years without a common political objective," he wrote, adding that the M5S MEPs voted in conjunction with the other members of the political group only 20% of the time. He also mentioned the "uncomfortable" news of improper use of funds at the hands of some Ukip MEPs to support the Brexit campaign as further reasons to seek new horizons.
In a short but heartfelt note addressed to Nigel Farage announcing that the M5S will part ways, Grillo wrote: "I wish you the best and hope that our paths will cross each other again, maybe when you will be an ambassador of the United Kingdom to the United States, as advocated by the President-elect [Donald] Trump. We can change this world."
The proposal to split from EFD sparked an intense debate among M5S members, as evidenced in comments on Grillo's blog post and on social media. Among the critics, some denounced the way the consultation was organised, claiming there was not enough time to make an informed choice. Many voiced their opposition to the deal with ALDE, saying it does not represent M5S's values.
ALDE leader Verhofstadt has made a passionate bid for the EU parliament presidency, which seems at odds with the more "eurosceptic" vision the M5S has championed for Italy's place in the European Union, repeatedly seeking a referendum on Italy's position in the Eurozone. Indeed, Grillo himself did not have kind words for Verhofstadt, whom he described as "eurostatecentrism incarnated" in the past.
Grillo included Verhofstadt in a list of "unpresentable" MEPs in July 2015, saying he was a politician who "collects seats" and implying he was part of a lobby for Belgian shipping group Exmar, denouncing his vested interests in promoting the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Pact (TTIP).
According to Grillo, there are four conditions on the ALDE-M5S alliance, including: voting autonomy for M5S members within the group but a common front on common battles such as simplifying European bureaucracy, addressing migrant crisis with permanent relocation, promoting green economy, developing digital and tech economy to promote job growth. Grillo also mentioned a commitment to shared values of direct democracy, transparency, freedom, honesty and to citizens' participation in European Union's institutions.
A document leaked online by a group of scholars who oppose the deal shows that, as part of the agreement, ALDE and M5S committed to work on a far-reaching reform of the eurozone to "fix some of the underlying flaws" of the euro currency.
The liberal ALDE was the "only group open to dialogue" with M5S, Grillo noted. The party counts 68 MEPs and, with the addition of the M5S' 17, it would become the third-biggest political party, overtaking the European Conservative and Reformist Group. Verhofstadt's bid for presidency would also receive a boost.
The one-time Belgian prime minister, and former candidate to the presidency of the European Council, has stepped forward as a candidate to lead the European Parliament, but faces an uphill battle to win the 376 votes required to win.
The biggest political group in the parliament, the European People's Party (EPP), supports Antonio Tajani, a one-time spokesperson for disgraced former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, while fellow Italian Gianni Pittelli is the nominee of the Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (SD), the second-most important parliamentary group with 189 seats.
Verhofstadt's vision for the European Union is one of more close co-operation between member states, less like a confederation of sovereign nations and more like a federalist state.
"That is majority ruling, a government, a treasury, a common defence – that doesn't mean member states will disappear, they will not disappear, but there has to be a balance between the efficiency in which we can take decisions at a federal level and the autonomy and identity of our member states," he told IBTimes UK in November. "Let's create a European defence union, let's take on our responsibilities... Let's become an empire, an empire of the good and not of the bad," he said.