As a major dispute between rival factions of Italy’s Five-Star Movement, New Europe spoke with Italian parliamentarian Cristian Romaniello about the deep internal crisis within the left-leaning, anti-establishment alliance, one which was precipitated by a leadership clash between Five-Star’s founder Beppe Grillo and former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
Romaniello was expelled by Five-Star’s parliamentary delegation after he openly disagreed with a confidence vote on the current Italian government, which is led by the ex-head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi.
New Europe (NE): What are the main reasons for the clash between Beppe Grillo and Giuseppe Conte? A new internal crisis can be very dangerous for the movement.
Cristian Romaniello (CR): The Five-Star Movement has always been a container of chaos, but in politics, order should prevail. This chaos should have given answers to policies that weren’t based on order. After years where it wasn’t a problem to be in internal chaos – because the movement was in the opposition and not rooted in different territories, but was more focused on the act of protest – at a certain point the movement had to take the responsibility to govern the country. In this context, it experienced how difficult it is to make unpopular decisions and to get concrete results. They also experienced how, even if you have a result, this doesn’t bring you votes. And if you don’t get the results you want, your supporters might disappear. It was from here that all of the problems started. When things go wrong, someone is always putting up obstacles on the leading person. I think this was wrong because when you lead, you should be focused on policies and not on other people trying to disrupt what you are doing. After the resignation of (current Foreign Minister) Luigi Di Maio (in January 2020) we had Vito Crimi and then saw an escalation where the reputation of the movement became very negative. As an example, I can remember the vote on the modification of the European Stability Mechanism treaty and the vote of confidence on the Draghi Government. These controversial political decisions that were made by the movement marked a big internal change. The leadership of Giuseppe Conte was emerging even if it was not officially confirmed. When Conte lost his position as prime minister, we were under a leadership that was coming to an end and didn’t have anything to say anymore. We didn’t have a leader or even the conditions to nominate one. Beppe Grillo made a decision to choose Conte and have him reshape a movement that had already been partially destroyed. Conte took this task very seriously and started working from the foundations. He has – and rightly so – centralized a large part of the political power inside the movement. A clash between Conte and Grillo emerged because Grillo wanted to preserve his last bastion of power – the ability to make political decisions. Conte, as the nominated leader, didn’t want to have someone veto his decisions. Now, after this deep clash, and after the intervention of some peacekeepers from inside the movement, Grillo has established a neutral committee that will be tasked with deciding on the written proposals that have been submitted by Conte.
NE: After Grillo’s decision to create a so-called ‘neutral committee’, which was a sort of compromise in order to save the unity of the movement, do you think it will be able to rescue the movement and avoid any further divisions?
CR: It isn’t an easy task. They are in the middle of a war, even if I think that it is already over. The two main belligerents made it clear that they have opposing political standpoints. Grillo is ready to dismiss the idea of having a supreme leader for Five-Star, while Conte is ready to create a new political party and bring with him a very large part of the movement. The difficulty for these two people is that they are coming from very different points of view, but at a certain time they will have to choose which side of the dividing line that they’re on or create room for a third political figure. The solutions are: accepting the one leader solution proposed by Conte or put him in a central role in a committee that has the authority to make decisions. The priority now is that the movement needs a tool in order to take fast and effective decisions.
NE: Is Conte really ready to divide the movement?
CR: Conte wants to achieve his goals and to fulfil the political objectives for which he was asked to lead the movement. I think that Grillo would have gone on even without Conte. I see several positive reasons for a split, especially for Conte.
NE: Even if the movement can finally find a way out of this crisis, do you think it will be able to play an important role in Italian politics?
CR: This will depend on Conte’s presence. If he is on board, everything will be repaired and the party will remain together. However, for some, it is far more convenient to have two separate movements because the total number of potential MPs is higher with two parties. If Conte will be out, I think he will get more votes for the Five-Star Movement. If Conte goes away, the movement will really have to work hard in the next 18 months to catch up with the electoral consensus. Regardless of what Grillo’s role is, the movement absolutely needs a leader who is capable of making decisions.