Giuseppe Conte, Italy’s prime minister, gestures as he delivers speech. (Photographer: Alessia Pierdomenico/Bloomberg)

Italy's Populist Leader Stakes Claim to Be Trump's Man in Europe

(Bloomberg) -- Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte took his cues from Donald Trump at their first White House meeting, backing the president’s views on trade, migration, security and defense spending and setting himself up as an advocate for U.S. policy in the heart of the European Union.

“We are two governments of change -- many things unite us,” Conte said at a joint press conference Monday. “Italy and the U.S. are twin countries.”

The Italian premier offers Trump some rare support among European leaders, echoing his populist rhetoric, skepticism toward the EU status quo and push to improve relations with Russia. Trump in turn praised Italy’s crackdown on immigration, saying other European countries should follow its example.

While he may be the closest on policy, Conte is just the latest in a string of European leaders to court the U.S. leader and the mixed results of his predecessors offers a note of caution. British Prime Minister Theresa May was openly criticized by Trump when he visited London this month and she also faced a backlash from angry voters. France’s Emmanuel Macron has attempted to craft his own special relationship through a mixture of tough talk and flattery, but saw the U.S. walk out on the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran Nuclear deal all the same.

Mediterranean Coordination

The U.S. president won Conte’s endorsement on Russia and defense spending and the Italian leader said Trump’s demands that European allies to step up their military funding is “reasonable.”

For his part, Conte said the U.S. shares its goal of organizing a peace conference on Libya, where Italy is trying to delay a French-backed plan for elections on December 10. The U.S. and Italy have agreed to step up coordination in the Mediterranean to counter terrorism and control illegal immigration.

“With both Trump and Conte, every meeting is greeted as a success,” said Armando Sanguini, a former Italian diplomat who’s now an adviser at think tank Ispi. “But Italy and U.S. have been partners for decades, and no one spoke about military commitments this evening.”

One potential banana skin was the $31-billion U.S. trade deficit with Italy. Although Trump last week walked back from threats to impose an extra tariff on European cars and signed a truce with the region, tensions over global commercial imbalances remain. Conte expressed understanding for the U.S. administration demands of “more equitable” trade relations.

While Germany -- a regular target of Trump’s twitter barbs -- would be the main loser, Italy would also suffer a major blow if Trump were to eventually follow through on his threat to slap tariffs on car imports from Europe.

Attacking EU Partners

In the run-up to the meeting, Conte’s two deputy premiers and political sponsors -- Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-immigrant League and Luigi Di Maio, who heads the anti-establishment Five Star movement -- stepped up their own confrontation with Italy’s European partners.

Salvini said Italy would back the U.K. in trade talks with the EU, threatening the bloc’s policy of speaking with a single voice on commerce. Di Maio pledged to forge ahead with the government’s plans to increase spending, setting up a clash with the EU’s fiscal rules.

Conte flew to Washington with the aim of touting his country as a potential “facilitator” between the U.S. and the EU, according to source’s close to the premier’s office cited by the news agency Ansa.

The meeting on Monday was the third between Conte and Trump. The two leaders first met in Canada in June, where the Italian premier backed Trump’s call to readmit Russia to Group of Seven meetings -- a proposal that was promptly shunned by the other leaders.

“We’ve become friendly over the G-7 meetings and some phone calls,” Trump said on meeting Conte. “I agree very much what you’re doing with respect to migration and illegal immigration and even legal immigration.”

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