Comedian Beppe Grillo on Italy's Political and Economic Future

In Italy’s last elections, Grillo’s party took the most votes. He explains why his country should default on its debt and hold a referendum on the euro

Grillo on vacation in Sardinia
Photograph by Francesco Nazardo for Bloomberg Businessweek

You started as a comic.
I am still a comic, a fantastic one.

Were you always political?
No, I went through stages. First, a comic of jokes. Then I discovered jokes about politics. Then I discovered that politics passed through the products we have in our fridge, the yogurt that does 3,600 kilometers in a truck. Behind the everyday there was global politics. People came out of my shows saying, “He made us laugh, but also think. What should we do?” I tried to translate it into a political movement, the Meetups, which I took from Howard Dean. And we went ahead until the national elections, where we took 25 percent.

So it’s been an evolution, from jokester to political leader.
Exactly. But I’m always the same. My shows, now they call them speeches.

You’ve been at war with the Italian media.
Yes. They see us as a threat to Europe. Because we want to renegotiate the debt. We don’t want to talk about the euro. We want to renegotiate about the billions of euros of interest a year that’s eating us alive.

You’re talking about default?
When you have a debt that’s strangling you, you’re not growing. You need to go and say, “Let’s do it in a different way.” The problem is that so much of our debt is in the hands of French and German banks, and they want the money. We couldn’t go bankrupt because we’d drag down Europe with us.

But it’s still like that, isn’t it?
Once they have recovered their credit, they’ll drop us.

You want to act before they do.
Absolutely. So there’s this stirring up of information against me. They want to give the idea that the movement is dead. But we’re in phase 2.0.

Let’s talk about the public debt. It was used to pay for pensions. Is it right for the people who live on these pensions, in a country where there’s a lot of private savings, to default on the debts?
This is public debt. You can’t pay it with private patrimonies.

But the public debt was taken to pay pensions, which are now in banks in private hands. Is it right to ask investors to lose money when the money is there in the banks?
We’ve already extended the pension age to 70 years. At the same time, we have youth unemployment that’s nearing 40 percent. We are one of the oldest populations in the world. We have millions of retirees. It’s not sustainable.

These are the sentiments that fuel your party’s success but also the other protest parties all over Europe, right?
No. This is something different. This is not a party. It’s, for the first time, citizens that aren’t tied to a party. They unite themselves in a movement born without public funds.

Where did Italy go wrong?
It was the Italians.

But at what point did Italy take a wrong turn?
The drastic point was the accord between the mafia and the state.

Are you talking about the Cosa Nostra, the old Sicilian families? Or something more general?
I’m talking about a financial mafia. A different mafia, on the boards of companies.

Do you have the power to get anything done?
The other parties cornered us. Because they did this coup d’état. In a night, President Giorgio Napolitano prolonged his mandate to six years longer than Obama’s—14 years, a man of 85 years.

Is the democratic path closed to you?
We still exist. If we have the chance, we could take the country and start to create an economy of small enterprise, of artisans, of agriculture, of tourism.

What’s the plan to be able to get that chance?
Unfortunately, the crash. Greece. It’s our mirror.

The plan is to wait for the crash and then to win elections?
I hope to go to elections first. To make people understand that this, for the Italians, is a train they can’t miss. They call me a terrorist who fires off these messages of violence. I said if we fail, there will be violence. The president of the employers’ union says the same things. The unions say it.

Berlusconi took third place in elections. Now he’s managed to get the most amount of power. Is he a genius?
He’s not a genius. He’s tricky.

What’s the way forward?
The way now is to organize ourselves. Put people on television who are well prepared. Because the politician today is the television politician.

And the road is still through Parliament?
The road is still through Parliament, bringing some parliamentarians out, bringing them into the piazzas.

You’ve said that you want a referendum on the euro, to do an information campaign, and then let Italians decide.
I’m beyond the euro. The euro is no longer a problem. We’re already outside the euro. Our problem isn’t the euro. The real problem is the debt.

Why do the referendum?
The referendum, because we want our monetary sovereignty. If we printed money now, there’d be a bit more inflation but we’d be competitive with all the countries in the world.

Would you vote to stay in or get out?
Europe is one thing. The euro is something else. Of the 28 EU countries, there are 11 that aren’t in the euro. They aren’t at risk of default. The Greeks could have been saved. They don’t care that the Greeks are dying in a corner. Just like they don’t care about us.

So you’d vote to leave the euro?

You’d vote to leave the euro?
I, absolutely. Well I, I tell you … with a referendum, I’d also accept the euro if it was chosen by the Italians.

But your personal vote would be?
It’s not a personal vote. You shouldn’t put it like that. You can’t put a personal vote on something that regards Europe.

Sure. But you’d have to vote no or yes on the ballot.
This is my problem. It’s not yours.

You don’t want to answer.
No. It’s my problem.

Sure. I understand. You don’t want to answer.
No. I don’t want to answer, because it’s not the role of any leader of a party or a movement to decide what to do or to influence others.

We’ll do a year of information. We should have held a referendum when we entered. Nobody asked us anything.

You don’t want to answer because you don’t want to influence the people, that’s what you’re saying?
The principle is that certain decisions belong to the collective. And then I accept the decision of the collective.

In five years, where do you see Italy?
Either the people understand that this movement, this participatory democracy of citizens, is the way of the future—or we won’t have a future in five years.

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