Beppe Grillo struts out on stage, grabs the microphone and belts out a blues song with his touring band. Stocky, with flowing white hair, jeans and black jacket, he looks more like an aging rock star than the leader of the largest of the new breed of political party threatening to turn the European Union on its head.
On a breezy evening, under a cloudless sky and full moon, Mr. Grillo is in a particularly good mood. "Voi siete tutti belli" – "You're all beautiful" – he shouts to thunderous applause in the main square of Novara, a pretty little city just west of Milan in northern Italy's struggling industrial heartland.
That's because his party, the Five Star Movement (M5S), stands to do well in the EU's parliamentary election on Sunday. He is not seeking a seat for himself, but the firebrand former comedian punches the air as he tells the crowd: "We will win."
He is not alone in his optimism. A new generation of populist "euroskeptic" parties – some left, some right and others, like M5S, impossible to nail down on the political spectrum – is expected to take as much as one-quarter of the assembly's 751 seats.
That won't form a majority, but is enough to cause trouble during the next stage of the EU's arduous (and increasingly onerous) integration process.
Voters pay scant attention to the European Parliament between elections every five years, but this campaign is generating a buzz. Doubts about the grand scheme have gone from the fringe to the mainstream, and suddenly, pro-Europe forces are on the defensive.
In Denmark, the People's Party, both euroskeptic and anti-immigration, is leading the polls, while the fledgling Alternative for Germany is appealing to an electorate wondering why its euros went to bail out Greece, a country many think has no business even using the same currency.
According to party candidate Jorge Meuthen, "the mood in the EU has changed since the 2008 financial crisis." A professor of economics in Kehl, just across the Rhine from the European Parliament in Strasbourg, he argues that "people don't see wealth coming from the EU but they see the regulations. They're waking up because they see more costs than benefits."
Across the English Channel, the surging United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), led by the witty and articulate Nigel Farage (imagine Beppe Grillo in a fine suit, cigarette in one hand, pint in the other), wants to yank Britain out of the 28-member union. The EU's endless laws and regulations, he argues, are shredding British sovereignty and costing taxpayers a fortune.
Tony Travers, who teaches government at the London School of Economics, says UKIP is gaining support not just because it is anti-EU but because it's also Britain's new default opposition party. Traditionally, the Liberal Democrats played that role, but lost it by forming a coalition with Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives.
"UKIP is picking up status as a major protest party," he says, "and they're getting votes from people who didn't vote before."
If his party comes out on top in the election, Mr. Farage promises to turn the European Parliament into something akin to a demolition derby. "I think, frankly, when it comes to chaos, you ain't seen nothing yet," he said recently.
Some parties mix their skepticism with nationalism and xenophobia.
The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party once advocated planting land mines along Greece's borders to keep out immigrants. It should capture less than 10 per cent of the vote, but France's National Front – a party UKIP's Mr. Farage considers racist and anti-Semitic – is expected to fare twice as well. Marine Le Pen, its charismatic leader, has demanded a return to the franc and a formal referendum to reconsider French membership in the EU.
Watching all this, the pro-Europe parties and top civil servants are growing alarmed. They argue that members of the EU and euro zone (the 18 countries that have adopted the currency) must draw closer to each other to assure social peace and the economic cohesion required to prevent another crisis like the one that almost tore the zone apart in 2012.
To this end, they are seeking everything from an EU-wide program to bail out banks and "euro bonds" backed by all countries using the currency, to a unified defence and foreign policy.
Only last week, as populist parties dominated the headlines, European Central Bank president Mario Draghi strayed from his usual statistics-laden script to, in effect, make a political plea. He said the crisis would have been less severe if the euro-zone countries weren't running off in all directions. "Our future lies with more integration," he said, "not with the renationalization of our economies."
Still, the rise of the skeptics suggests that the crisis of 2008 and the deep recessions that followed have persuaded millions of voters that the touted benefits of the EU were greatly exaggerated or that, 15 years after its launch, the common currency is not ready for prime time.
Dennis de Jong, a member of the left-wing Dutch Socialist party, argues that the EU and the euro zone expanded far too quickly, embracing debt-soaked, uncompetitive countries that were clearly out of sync with the healthy few, such as Germany, Finland and Netherlands.
His party, which has 15 seats in the Dutch parliament and expects to win three EU seats, is calling for a debate on the euro and is open to a currency that is stronger in northern countries than in the south. "If you have one currency, you need one economy," he says. "The southern European economies would do well when they could devalue their currencies."
Mr. Grillo's M5S does not necessarily advocate the breakup of the euro zone, but he too wants a referendum on the common currency and an end to austerity taxes that he says "massacre" Italy.
At the same time, his party is taking heat from academics and workers for having an ill-defined economic plan that embraces some key components of the European project while rejecting others. He is in favour of euro bonds, yet wants the currency referendum and Italy to withdraw from the fiscal compact – the 2012 agreement that puts caps on a government's budget deficit and overall debt loads.
Gianluigi Pelloni, director of the Rimini Centre for Economic Analysis (and an adjunct professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont.), thinks any move to bring back the old lira would be disastrous. It would allow Italy to use devaluations to avoid economic reforms needed to make its economy sustainable in the long term. "Italy without the euro would be nothing," he says. "It would be a little Mediterranean country on its way down."
At the Grillo rally in Novara, retired Telecom Italia worker Lorenzo Quattrocchi has another reason for not supporting M5S, even if he admires its strong anti-corruption stance. Mr. Grillo, he says, has failed to exploit his ample power.
In last year's elections, the party swept into the Italian parliament, taking 25.5 per cent of the vote, which gave it 109 seats in the chamber of deputies and 54 in the senate. But it also considers all other parties corrupt and so refuses to take part in coalitions. A more flexible stance might have allowed it to join forces with the Democratic Party to form a stable, reform-minded government.
"He didn't, therefore he is useless," Mr. Quattrocchi says. "If he wants to be effective, he has to be at the table.
"Still, he'll do well in the election. He attracts the malcontents – and we have a lot of those in this country."