It’s a surreal moment, standing in Bologna’s famous Piazza Maggiore at the closing public event for a new Left coalition that hopes to be the big suprise of these European elections. A number of speakers have already been on the stage, talking about the need to restore both dignity and a certain amount of sovereignty to Italy in relation to the German-dominated EU. Surreal, then, because, as the figurehead for the new movement opens his articulate and impassioned speech, nobody understands a word. Nobody understands a word because Alexis Tsipras is – reasonably enough – speaking Greek.
This new movement, Lista Tsipras, was born earlier this year when a group of left-wing intellectuals decided to adopt Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the Syriza movement in Greece, as the leader for an Italian movement to campaign against the current European policy of austerity. Explaining their choice, the founding group – which includes Andrea Camilleri, Paolo Flores d’Arcais, Luciano Gallino, Marco Revelli, Barbara Spinellie and Guido Viale wrote:
“His country, Greece, has been used as a laboratory during the crisis and has been brought to its knees: for that he is our flag-bearer. Tsipras has said that Europe, if it wants to survive, needs to change fundamentally. It needs to give itself the financial means for a Marshall plan, that creates jobs with shared investment plans and fills the gap between the Europe that’s doing fine, and the Europe that can’t make it, offering support to the latter. It must become a political union, giving itself a constitution: written not by governments but by its parliament, after an ample consultation with all the associations and grass-roots organisations present throughout Europe.”1
The movement has been supported by a number of small but significant left-wing parties like Sinistra Ecologia Liberta and Rifondazione Comunista as well as various high-profile public figures. They declare themselves to be the real alternative to a neo-liberal consensus in Europe.
Does this new movement stand a chance? Well, for these elections it’s almost a given that they don’t. The latest opinion polls show support at about 3.5% (there’s a cut off point of 4% for election), while Ladbrookes are currently offering 100/1 odds on Tsipras becoming President of the EU Commission (to put that in perspective – Irish leader Enda Kenny is quoted at 33/1).
The fact that it’s most likely to be an initial failure, in its main objectives, doesn’t though make the list any less interesting, or perhaps significant. The fact that this movement has filled Bologna’s Piazza, at a moment when the European election promises to be largely a contest between Matteo Renzi’s Partito Democratico and Beppe Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle, is worth a pause for thought. The message from this Piazza tonight, and for the elections, is that a new Left is being born, in response to the crisis, and in response to the failure of the dominant existing Left parties.
Bologna is very much the heartland of the Partito Democratico – on a local level the city of Bologna, and most of the Province of Emilia-Romagna (of which it is the main city), is run by Renzi’s party; or perhaps more accurate to say it is run by the party of which Matteo Renzi has been recently elected leader. The primaries for electing Renzi were divisive, and maybe nowhere more so than Bologna. Tonight, on the stage, Cecilia Alessandrini, the former secretary of one of city’s most famous local PD branches (The famous ‘Galvani’ – which included amongst its members former PM and EU Commission President Romano Prodi), explained why she had left the Partito Democratico and now supported the Lista Tsipras
“Our gesture [a number of party members left with her] was certainly a coherent one, in the face of a party that no longer represents us, but it was also a gesture of hope, a hope that comes from the idea that there’s no sense in a ‘useful vote’ dictated by the absence of alternatives. The alternative is there, always. And even when it’s not readily visible, a progressive party searches it out, and doesn’t stop until it finds it”.
So, while the Partito Democratico is expected to do well in these elections, it’s clear that there’s an ever growing number of left wing voters who, particularly in the continued, albeit relative, absence of the left’s nemesis Silvio Berlusconi, are not prepared to simply hold their noses and vote PD as they have done in the past. They are in search of a new home.
At the moment the PD are very much seen as the pro-Europe party, and the question of Europe, paradoxically, will play a much greater role in the Italian general election rather than the European Elections this weekend, whenever that general election eventually is called (Renzi, as we’re told repeatedly this evening in the Piazza, is the third consecutive Prime Minister who has not been voted in by the Italian public). The question of Europe, and what role Italy should play in it, is very much up for discussion at the moment. Beppe Grillo has openly talked about a referendum on the Euro if his party wins the next general election – something which prior to 2013 might have seemed absurd, but with each passing month, laden with more and more corruption scandals and austerity measures, seems not just possible but likely.
The Lista per Tsipras though rally towards Europe, and even the Euro, but under radically different conditions. From the stage Tsipras will call for a European New Deal, for the lifting of the social compact, for the realisation of a new Europe. In some ways, though, this list shares a similar tactic with Grillo. His stated policy is to strong-arm it with Europe – knowing that Italy is the piece that really has the power to bring down the French and German banks; the Lista per Tsipras talks rather about solidarity amongst the southern states of Europe. Whether it’s Grillo’s Italy brazenly going it alone, or a Tsipras led coalition of southern states, the end result is the same – a clear message to the Euro-zone bankers that we really are all in this together. It’s worth pointing out that one firm prediction for this weekend’s European elections in Italy is that the majority of voters will side with parties that reject outright the policies of austerity which are the EU’s preferred policy for Italy.
There’s common ground with Grillo in opposing other current European policies: opposition to the sought after trade deal, Ttip, with the US, so beloved of the European People’s Party Commission Presidential candidate Jean-Claude Juncker, and opposition in particular to the high-speed rail link (T.A.V) which has become a locus of popular protest in Northern Italy.
The idea, though, that some new-Left movement would be able to collaborate with Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle is unlikely. Repeatedly we’re reminded from the stage that in this moment of crisis it’s important to recognise the division of Right and Left – something that Grillo blithely dismisses. The importance of a new popular Left is repeatedly called for from the stage – echoing in some ways the recent call in the UK by Owen Jones for a new movement on the Left to counter counter the rise of the likes of UKIP; What this new movement may be remains the question. Far more nuanced than the likes of UKIP, Beppe Grillo’s movement may make claim to being post-ideological, but the truth is that a large part of its voters would identify themselves with traditionally left-wing policies – the social state being the clearest example, public health care and education; the challenge for a new-Left movement here, to gain votes, is to take them away from both the PD and Grillo’s M5S.