EU referendum in Italy is not an option, says euroskeptic M5S party leader

  • Luigi Di Maio, leader of the 5-Star Movement (M5S), told CNBC he won't "even consider" having a referendum in Italy on membership of the European Union.
  • M5S is the party to watch in a forthcoming election in Italy on March 4.
  • Di Maio said he is willing to form a coalition with some rival parties.

The leader of the 5-Star Movement (M5S), a euroskeptic, populist party that's doing well in Italian polls ahead of an upcoming general election, has ruled out having a referendum in Italy on membership of the European Union (EU).

"We need to renegotiate some EU rules, but not in an in/out referendum," he said, noting that the U.K.'s decision to leave the EU had "weakened" the bloc.

The 5-Star Movement has repeatedly stated in the past that it would like to hold a referendum on euro zone membership and new leader Di Maio has echoed that perspective as recently as December. As the election on March 4 approaches, however, he appeared to have changed his mind.

When asked Wednesday if a M5S-led government would hold a vote on euro zone membership, Di Maio said he "wouldn't even contemplate that last resort."

"Germany, France Spain are renegotiating some of the EU rules. This is the time to make some deficit, to make investments and relaunch the Italian economy. I don't want to even consider that last resort," he said.

'We want to stabilize our economy'

The forthcoming Italian election is being closely watched by politicians and policymakers in Europe with the hope that the vote won't cause more political and economic upset for the country and wider region, particularly if a euroskeptic party like M5S should get a surprise win.

But Di Maio, who was in London to meet private investors and business leaders and explain M5S's policies, said he wants to stabilize Italy's economy within the EU framework.

"I have met with international investors today, and I have told them that we want to stabilize our economy. Our stance on Europe, on the euro, is that we want to remain part of the EU and the euro zone. We just want to change some economic rules. This should not scare businesses and investors (that) we want to get some results for Italy and re-launch the EU," he said.

The party to watch

The M5S is the party to watch in the forthcoming election, with the populist party vying with the center-left Democratic Party (PD) and the center-right Forza Italia for dominance in the polls, although both sides of the political spectrum have formed alliances with smaller parties.

The latest opinion poll published on Wednesday by RTI-Matrix in Italy showed that the center-right alliance comprising Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party as well as Lega Nord, Fratelli d'Italia and Noi con l'Italia currently stand to gain 39 percent of the vote.

The 5-Star Movement is the single most popular party, however, seen with 27.8 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, a center-left coalition of parties led by the Democratic Party (PD) is seen getting 25.9 percent of the vote.

A hung parliament is expected after the March 4 election, with no one party expected to gain an absolute majority required to govern alone. That means a coalition government is likely.

Di Maio has been critical of the ruling PD party's former and current prime ministers Matteo Renzi and Paolo Gentiloni, but a report by Reuters on Wednesday, citing anonymous sources, said that he would be willing to work in a grand coalition comprised of his M5S party, Berlusconi's Forza Italia and the center-left PD. Whether such a combination of disparate political views could work in practice is debatable, however.

'I want to see facts'

Speaking to CNBC, Di Maio said that he was interested in forming a coalition if necessary but admitted there were parties that M5S was "struggling to speak with." He did not identify those parties.

"I think we'll be the single largest political party in the elections. I think we can win more than 30 percent of the votes," he said. "If we won't have a majority, we will make a public appeal to all political parties and I hope that many of them will work in the interest of Italy."

"There are political parties we are struggling to speak with. Those parties represent the establishment that killed our country," he said. "I want to see facts. I don't have prejudices toward anyone, but I want to see them in action. I don't trust them until I'll see how they act in parliament."

The 5-Star Movement came to prominence under its founder, the comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo, who started the party in 2009. M5S quickly separated itself from Italy's traditional political elite by promoting an anti-establishment and euroskeptic manifesto that has resonated with more centrist voters. In the 2013 election, the party gained ground and won around 25 percent of the vote.

In September 2017, Di Maio won the majority of an online primary to become the party's de-facto leader. After his election, Di Maio told CNBC in September that he would welcome support from rivals in a coalition after the election but said that he would not give away cabinet seats in return for backing.

Despite his meteoric rise to the top of the party in a short space of time, Di Maio's detractors have said the former waiter lacks experience in government. Di Maio rebuffed that criticism, however, saying that his party had attracted members from all walks of life.

"I can accept that people believe I am inexperienced. We have been part of Italy's institutions for the past five years. I have been the House deputy speaker. I have represented one of Italy's most important institutions. And it's from this point of view," he said, "that I have asked Italy's best energy to join our projects."

"We have been joined by people from the world of academia, business, even sport. We have got the best skills from every sector … I believe we should play as a team, we can change our country if we work together," he said. "This is how I respond to those who say I am inexperienced."