Italian anti-establishment leader 'not anti-European'

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Beppe Grillo is the leader of the Five Star Movement (M5S). Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP
08:36 CET+01:00
Beppe Grillo, the leader of Italy's anti-establishment party which shook up politics last year, insisted on Thursday he was not anti-European and that his Five Star Movement (M5S) would win seats in European Parliament elections in May.

"I do not want to be considered the reactionary of Europe, I am not anti-European. I simply say there are various ways of looking at Europe," Beppe Grillo, a former comedian, said at a press conference in Rome.

The outspoken Grillo has called for a referendum in Italy on membership to the EU and the euro, saying it is up to the Italians to decide.

While his party won a quarter of the vote in elections last year with an anti-corruption message which struck chords in deeply recession-hit Italy, Grillo said it was still underestimated abroad.

"We're still seen just as Grillini," he said, referring to the "little crickets" nickname, a play on this surname, used by party members.

"We are just seen as a simple voice of protest because nothing like our movement has ever existed elsewhere in the world," he said.

Grillo is seen as a guru-like figure by many supporters but has been heavily criticized for populist rhetoric and a brash style against dissidents within his own movement.

He said Thursday he was sorry "the term 'populism' has become an insult".

Amid rising anti-immigration sentiment in Italy, Grillo said he represents a middle way between "the racists" and "those who want to welcome in everyone".

Despite his calls for a referendum on EU membership, the wild-haired leader who has long promised to export his brand of anti-establishment politics abroad said on Thursday that the movement would run in Europe parliamentary elections.

"We will win the European elections. I am committed and will go all the way," he said.

In December, EU Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso made an impassioned plea for Europeans to resist mounting populism and extremism ahead of the bloc-wide elections.

Europe is struggling to recover from a devastating economic crisis that has helped fuel anti-immigration and anti-EU sentiment, with far-right political parties gaining traction in several countries, and the migration of workers from poorer to richer member states becoming a hot political issue.

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In Italy, verbal attacks against the country's first black minister have given rise to fierce debate over national identity.

Grillo sparked outrage among liberals in October after he opposed a move to abolish a law which states illegal immigrants are criminals.

He held a poll on the issue on the party's website, but members voted against him and in favour of abolishing the law.

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