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The terrace of a private golf club on Sardinia’s Emerald Coast feels like an unlikely spot to meet one of Europe’s leading populists. Below us, a perfectly groomed course nestles into the hilly Mediterranean shrub land. In the distance is blue sea, dotted with yachts. The clientele — just a dozen or so people — is mostly foreign, and wealthy.
Beppe Grillo, successful comedian turned leader of the Five Star Movement, a protest party backed by nearly one in four Italians, picked the place because he’s on a two-week holiday in the area. He says he doesn’t play golf himself, though, as “You need to be calm.”
He is dressed in classic summer clothes: white short-sleeved shirt, unbuttoned at the top, and very light blue jeans, with a small tear above the knee. At 66, his hair is white, curly and wild but his glasses are stylish and I can smell his cologne. When his phone rings, the tone plays the guitar riff from “Bad to the Bone”, a 1982 rocker by George Thorogood and the Destroyers.
The setting may seem incongruous, given Grillo’s image as a foe of Europe’s political and financial establishment, but he doesn’t seem worried.
“This place gives me a touch of wellbeing, and that means a less dramatic vision of the world,” he says. Before we reach our table, however, he has already doled out an example of the kind of sarcastic social and economic criticism that brought him fame long before he entered politics. “It’s all fake here,” he says of an area known for its glamorous exclusivity.
When we do sit down, Grillo wants to order right away. Like many Italians, he doesn’t ask for a menu, but has a conversation with the waiter instead. For himself, he negotiates a mixed salad, with tuna, egg and mozzarella. For me, he suggests cold seafood antipasto. He doesn’t drink alcohol, so orders fizzy water. I can’t resist a glass of Vermentino di Gallura, a local white wine.
I jump right in with the Greek crisis. We are meeting just a few hours after eurozone leaders finally reached an agreement to negotiate a fresh bailout. Grillo’s first public reaction — on his Twitter feed and blog — was harsh. The European creditors, led by the German chancellor Angela Merkel, had used “terror tactics” to humiliate Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras, a fellow populist, into accepting tough new austerity measures.
But when I ask him directly what he thinks of the deal, he seems more discouraged than angry. “I don’t know, it’s always the same story. Every nation has lost its sovereignty.” This leads into the first of many tangents. “We’ve delegated politics to bankers. The European Central Bank is inside Deutsche Bank and Deutsche Bank is inside the Bundesbank,” he says before moving on to mention Japanese “just-in-time” manufacturing and Britain’s zero-hour labour contracts. “They trick all the statistics because, if you work one hour, it means you’re employed.”
As we nibble on pane carasau, a traditional Sardinian flatbread, I try to reel him back to the main question. A week earlier, Grillo had showed his support for Greece by making the trip to Athens’ Syntagma Square, after Tsipras had unexpectedly called a referendum on earlier bailout terms proposed by Brussels. The “No” vote — backed by Tsipras — won a resounding victory that night.
Now that plebiscite of defiance seems to have been pointless. Greece still needed funds to avoid default, and Tsipras had been forced to cave on many points to get it. So was it worth it, I ask?
Grillo, who has been vocal about his desire for Italy to hold its own referendum on the euro, hesitates. “I think it helped clear up the notion that these decisions should be taken by the people, not others,” he says. As for Tsipras, he says: “If he sells out the country, that’s exactly what the Greeks don’t want.”
The food arrives and the best of my antipasto is the seared tuna with peach, and the marinated salmon. Grillo loads his salad up with salt and that seems to rev him up a notch. He starts attacking “those people” who have a stranglehold on Europe’s economy.
“They have a kind of illness, it’s called alexithymia, which means difficulty recognising the emotions of others: pain, pleasure, joy,” he says. Does he mean people like Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission? “Yes,” he responds. “They don’t care if they have to put tens of millions of people into hunger to balance an account, it’s collateral damage. We’ve entrusted our lives to people who know nothing about life,” he adds.
I suggest that a referendum on euro membership might not appeal to Italians, given the scenes of economic distress they have witnessed in Athens in the past few weeks. But Grillo tells me I’m wrong because Italy’s experience with the single currency has been awful.
The Italian economy has only just started growing again — by 0.3 per cent in the first quarter of this year, after a bruising triple-dip recession. Unemployment remains high — at 12.4 per cent — and for the country’s youth that figure is more than 40 per cent. “We entered monetary union from one day to the next, and they said it was for our own good,” he says. “Since then, all our economic, social and financial indicators have got worse.”
The chaos in Athens has, he says, been wildly overstated. “I went there with bread, cheese and nylon socks, to help. I thought there would be people on the ground, screaming, ‘Aaaaaah!’ Instead, I found a splendid city, the restaurants were full. There were many tourists. You ate well — with €18 or €20. It was clean. I am sure that if they take back the drachma, they’ll have a year of trouble but then they will become paradise on earth with 10m people.”
I ask Grillo how he became a comedian. He stops me right there. “But I am a comedian! You don’t become one, it’s in your nature,” he says. He was born in 1948 in Genoa, where his father owned a business that manufactured welding equipment used mainly in the demolition of ships. This exposed him to the grittiness of the northern port city from an early age. “There was cocaine, bags of sugar, coffee, sailors, and transvestites,” he tells me. He worked briefly as a blue-jeans salesman. “He didn’t sell much, but he made everyone die with laughter,” his employer told La Repubblica.
After trying his luck as a stand-up comedian, he was discovered in the late 1970s by the TV presenter Pippo Baudo, who gave him a slot on his primetime show on the state broadcaster Rai. Before heading to Sardinia, I had trawled through some of his old shows, including one from 1982 called “I’ll show you America”. In it, Grillo wanders around New York City in a jeans jacket, derisively mimicking the Italian tourists of the time, but also highlighting urban blight in the US.
“We’re here on 42nd St, the sewer of New York,” he says at one point. “There’s everything here: prostitution, corruption, flea-trafficking. Every sort of vice. And I immediately feel at ease.”
He tells me that, even then, “without knowing it, I did politics in my shows”, but he surely knew he was in hot water when, in 1986, he made a scathing joke — perhaps his most famous — about corruption in the inner circle of Bettino Craxi, Italy’s socialist prime minister at the time. “If everyone in China is a socialist, from whom do they steal?” he said. Grillo was barred from state television.
His criticism of the political system in Italy took a new form a decade ago, when he launched a blog that would provide a forum for debates about renewable energy, economic justice, the sustainability of food supply chains, corporate malfeasance, and internet freedom.
The blog became one of the most read by Italians, and led to the foundation, in late 2009, of the Five Star Movement. Riding a wave of popular discontent with politics, the party rocked Italian politics. A protest called “V-day” — V being for vaffanculo, the Italian equivalent of “fuck off” — drew 80,000 people to one event. Grillo later introduced a system in which as much as half of the salary of Five Star Movement politicians goes to finance small business, reflecting his desire for a civic revolution, too.
We order some fruit — plain strawberries for him and “Macedonia”, or fruit salad, with ice cream for me. The fight against public corruption, which delivers high-level scandals and arrests on a nearly daily basis in Italy, has been a winning issue for Grillo.
“Deep down, this is our revolution: to put honest people where they should be. Then they will surround themselves with other honest people,” he says. I venture that, sadly, the problem seems almost intractable, and ask him why he thinks this is. “It’s because the corrupt don’t think they’re corrupt. Those who use public funds for their own fucking business think it’s their money. And they buy champagne, dinners, vibrators, and petrol vouchers with it.”
Two years ago, the Five Star Movement gained 25.5 per cent of the vote in Italy’s parliamentary elections, making it the country’s third-largest party in parliament. But its strong showing may have been a double-edged sword. Grillo decided against co-operating with either of the leading parties, contributing to two months of instability and stalled government.
He himself didn’t take a seat. According to Five Star rules that prohibit those with criminal convictions from assuming office, he is unable to do so — he was convicted for manslaughter after an accident in 1981, when a car he was driving plunged into a ravine, killing three passengers — but he denies this is the reason. “I don’t have any desire to participate in professional political life,” he says. “It’s not in my nature.”
Last year, when Matteo Renzi, the young and energetic former mayor of Florence, became prime minister, support for Grillo’s party dwindled, amid criticism that its politicians were purely obstructionist and didn’t have any interest in governing. But in recent months, it has gained traction again on the back of a massive corruption scandal in Rome and the government’s struggles to handle thousands of migrants arriving on Italian shores from north Africa. The most recent polls show its support between 23 and 26 per cent.
I ask Grillo what he thinks of Renzi, credited by many with finally reviving Italy’s fortunes. The response is predictably scathing. “He’s just a bankruptcy curator with a bit more verve than the others,” he says. “And he lies. He says something on television, we go check the facts, and they are totally different. He’s morally retarded.”
As two espressos are gently placed on the table, I wonder whether Grillo has a more benign view of Pope Francis, who has put economic populism and environmentalism at the heart of his tenure at the helm of the Catholic Church. “We’re Franciscans,” Grillo says enthusiastically. “Our movement is based on solidarity, and the idea that no one should be left behind. There are a lot of similarities. The Pope has copied a lot from us,” he jokes.
This is one of the rare times during our lunch when I start to laugh. For the most part there’s nothing slapstick about Grillo’s humour: it is dry, sarcastic, often angry. Also, he confesses he is holding back a bit, because he’s with the FT and is trying to make a good impression — “la bella figura”.
His faith intrigues me. Is he Catholic? “I don’t know what it means but, yes,” he answers. I press him a bit more. Does he go to church? “Yes, but I’m up in the air, I’m in limbo. Maybe I believe more in reason, in passion, than religion.”
One of Grillo’s big economic policy ideas is to introduce a basic income of €7,200 per year for every citizen who is actively looking for a job. He would combine it with a dramatic overhaul of the tax system, scrapping income taxes and introducing a single, flat, consumption tax. “It’s income that inserts you into society, not work — so it has to be guaranteed from birth,” Grillo says. “My dream is universal income, with a completely different fiscal system to finance it.”
He seems dispirited that such economic ideas are not taken seriously. “If I express one of Piketty’s theories, no one accepts it, because I’m a comedian,” he says, “Stiglitz can say, ‘Let’s exit the euro’, but if I say it I’m just a comedian who’s talking bullshit,” he adds.
With the table cleared, Grillo seems to be getting restless. He turns to his side and doesn’t speak to me directly. He asks if I have enough material. I say that I do, but there are just a few more things.
I’m curious about what he thinks of US president Barack Obama, since some Five Star politicians have occasionally lashed out at American imperialism. “I thought Obama was a marvellous man, but I’ve moderated my view a little,” Grillo says, launching into a tirade against TTIP, the transatlantic trade deal that is being painstakingly negotiated between Washington and Brussels.
“This TTIP treaty, it’s just crazy stuff. We can never sign it. Multinationals will sue governments and win. We’ll be eating Grana cheese made with powdered milk, and chlorinated chicken. For the Americans, laws are barriers to profits, it’s a different mentality.”
He is, however, certainly pleased with one of Obama’s biggest diplomatic achievements: the nuclear deal with Iran. Grillo’s wife, Parvin, is Iranian-Italian and they would like to visit the country. “They are an extraordinary people. They have a sense of friendship and hospitality that we have forgotten,” he says. His admiration is especially directed at Iranian women: “They have an insane sense of sexuality and sensuality. They’re a little covered, which means there’s a sense of discovery that we have lost. Here, everyone has their tits out, right?”
I don’t really have an answer to that, so, after nearly two hours, we bid farewell. And on a day that, for better or for worse, feels like a turning point in European political and economic history, Grillo heads off to the beach.
James Politi is the FT’s Rome bureau chief
Illustration by James Ferguson