US President Joe Biden is set for talks with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni on Thursday, welcoming a far-right leader the US administration has praised for backing Ukraine against the Russian invasion.
The warm reception comes after initial trepidation in the Biden administration about Meloni, who rose to power last year as the head of Italy’s most far-right government since the end of World War II.
Biden administration concerns about her ideology have been eased by her support for Ukraine and her seeming openness to pull back from Italy’s participation in China’s infrastructure-building Belt and Road Initiative. Her visit comes as Italy prepares to take up the presidency next year of the Group of Seven industrialised nations.
White House officials said that in addition to discussing Ukraine and China, the two leaders were expected to discuss migration from North Africa to Europe’s southern shores.
More than 1,900 migrants have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean so far this year, bringing the total of dead and missing since 2014 to 27,675, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
“On issues of foreign policy, there’s been a lot of overlapping and mutually reinforcing approaches that we’re taking on with Italy,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.
Soon after Meloni’s victory last September, Biden warned about the rise of hard-right populism in Europe and in the United States.
Meloni became Italy’s first far-right leader to hold the premiership in Italy’s post-World War II republic after the Brothers of Italy party she co-founded more than a decade ago emerged as the largest vote-getter in the September 2022 elections.
The party has roots in a party founded by nostalgists for fascism following the demise of dictator Benito Mussolini’s regime.
However, Meloni brushes off any insinuation that she is nostalgic for Mussolini, writing in her autobiography, “I don’t hold the cult of fascism.”
Since coming to power, Meloni has faced criticism for her government’s direction that city halls stop automatically registering both parents in same-sex couples but instead limit recognition of parental rights only to the biological parent.
When Meloni ran for the premiership, she called for a naval blockade of northern Africa to thwart smugglers’ boats overcrowded with migrants determined to reach Europe’s southern shores. But once in office, she quickly dropped talk of any blockade.
Ahead of Meloni’s visit, the White House sought to stress the US and Italy’s close cooperation on Ukraine.
Kirby noted that Meloni has been one of the European Union’s most vocal supporters of Ukraine’s sovereignty, and Italy has hosted some 170,000 Ukrainians who have fled the war. Meloni has also been a champion of a stronger NATO and views the trans-Atlantic alliance as the linchpin of traditionally strong US-Italian relations.
“From a foreign policy lens, the Biden administration sees this is better than what they could have possibly expected or hoped for,” said Max Bergmann, director of the Europe, Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.