Italy’s Salvini to Trump: I Can Be Your Closest Ally in Europe

(Bloomberg) -- Just when friendly faces are scarce for Donald Trump across the Atlantic, a populist leader is knocking at the U.S. president’s door with an offer to become his closest European ally.

Face time with Trump is the latest ambition of Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, who dominates the government in Rome and views Europe as ripe for someone to fill the vacuum left by Brexit and prickly relations with Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron.

Italy’s Salvini to Trump: I Can Be Your Closest Ally in Europe

“This is the time for the U.S. to have a new special relationship, not with the U.K. but with Italy,” Guglielmo Picchi, a Salvini adviser and undersecretary at the Italian Foreign Ministry, said in an interview at his cavernous Rome office. “We’ll be the ones for Trump to call, his closest ally in the EU.”

While Germany’s economic might and France’s geopolitical influence make Europe’s two biggest powers hard to ignore for the U.S., a stamp of approval by Trump could give Salvini a boost, including against domestic rivals, ahead of European Parliament elections in May.

Maryland Resort

A possible meeting venue is the Conservative Political Action Conference from Feb. 27 to March 2 in National Harbor, Maryland, to which Salvini is invited and which Trump may attend, Picchi said. Salvini first met with Trump at a rally in Pennsylvania in 2016.

The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Italy’s Salvini to Trump: I Can Be Your Closest Ally in Europe

Salvini and Trump have much in common, sharing similar views on topics from migration to praise for Vladimir Putin. The head of Italy’s League party has tapped into discontent with immigration, a recession and the political elite, using a slogan, “Italy First,” that echoes Trump’s “America First.”

Salvini is an increasingly vocal presence on the world stage, firing broadsides at Macron, Merkel and other European Union partners over migrant arrivals and the EU’s budget rules. He’s gearing up for this year’s European election, calling it a battle against the liberal establishment, EU bureaucrats and Franco-German dominance.

A high profile foreign trip might also distract voters from an increasingly complex situation at home -- the Italian economy slipped into recession in the fourth quarter after months of fighting between the government and the EU over the budget.

Planning for the U.S. trip is fraught because of Italy’s experiment with populist government. While Salvini’s party leads in the polls, foreign relations are mostly a matter for Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who often has to mediate between Salvini and the other deputy premier, Luigi di Maio.

Picchi says Salvini’s place is on the global stage.

“Salvini and Trump see eye-to-eye on migration, job creation and protecting the national interest,” said Picchi, tipped as a foreign or defense minister in a possible government reshuffle after the European vote. “We have a strategic affinity, we have 400 intelligence and other personnel in Libya, we’re aligned with the U.S. in the Middle East.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.