The election of two Five Star Movement candidates in Italy to the Mayoralties of Rome and Turin should act as a wake-up call to those still campaigning for the UK to remain in the EU.
Right across Europe and beyond – including in the US with Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders – mainstream political parties are being challenged by movements described variously as populist or anti-establishment.
These are loathed, sneered at, tolerated or occasionally, grudgingly accepted, by the old guard according to their particular outlooks, hues and figureheads.
On the old Right of the political spectrum in Europe they encompass Nigel Farage’s UKIP that came third in terms of votes cast at the 2015 British General Election, Marine Le Pen’s recalibrated Front National in France, Geert Wilder’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, and Norbert Hofer’s Freedom Party that so nearly took the Presidency in Austria a month ago.
On the old Left, the most notable include Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, whose Leader, Alexis Tsipras fought a futile stand-off with the EU over debt repayments – a conflict settled, in the end, by just three individuals, none of which were Greek, behind closed doors in Brussels.
In Italy, in part due to the once seemingly endless saga surrounding Sylvio Berlusconi and his eventual replacement by an unelected EU bureaucrat in 2011, there are several parties fighting for the accolade of being anti-elite, which include the Lega Nord that adopts a regionalist perspective and comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, which campaigns against corruption in politics.
While emanating from differing directions, what unites these various groups and individuals who – as in the American case need not even have previously been aligned to any side or indeed may have swapped sides – is their identification of a problem with the mainstream elites and their appeal to those who sense themselves as having been by-passed or overlooked by parties that used to represent them.
None can claim to being fully formed and indeed there are quite evident problems with the maturity of some of the main players and their organisations, though this should not blind us to their ability to galvanise significant numbers of people such that we ought to expect them to change and develop into more mature movements in due course.
The lazy approach is to sneer at them and especially their current leaders with a view to dismissing the entire enterprise. That would be a grave error for, as we see now in Italy, they are all placed to achieve significant breakthroughs, if not now, at some point in the not too distant future.
And what this means for the Remain campaigners in the current debate in the UK over membership of the EU is that their very name and aim – to Remain – is erroneous. No matter what the outcome from the referendum on 23 June, there will be no remaining in an unchanged Union.
The lie perpetrated by the Leave side to this debate is that there is a significant Brussels machine hell-bent on usurping our national sovereignty. In fact, it is popular sovereignty that is under threat as the real decision-makers in the EU are figures that are well-known to us all, including David Cameron, Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande.
But that European Union – the one primarily driven by its Council – is only as strong as the sum of its parts. And if all of its parts are under attack domestically, through the rise of the alternative movements we see elected in parts of Italy today, then it will be a very different EU irrespective of the outcome.
It is to this most pressing need that all ought to be turning their attentions to in the immediate future – the need to reconnect politics with the people. And it is that that only the Leave side represent – in whatever corrupted form they present it in.