This must have been the moment he was waiting for: an energetic handshake with Donald Trump, with a smile and a deep look into his eyes to top it off. The two men seemed to be sealing a fresh pact. Cameras flashed, capturing the important moment for newspapers and history books — the five seconds that made Giuseppe Conte a part of world politics.
The U.S. president welcomed the Italian prime minister at the White House. For Conte, the invitation is "a sign of the special attention to Italy," he said during their joint press conference. "And to me as well," the Italian leader added after a short pause.
That sentence says a lot. It's an indication of how Conte feels on the home front. Overlooked. Overshadowed. After all, Italian media reports mostly focus on Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who repeatedly grabs the attention with xenophobic remarks. It almost seems as if Salvini, not Conte, is the one running the government.
Italy and the United States are almost like "twin countries."
In Washington, Trump and Conte demonstrated harmony. Their meeting was a win-win situation: The Italian showed himself off as a statesman, while the American gained an ally. Conte is now Trump's man in Europe. His best friend on a continent he just called an enemy. A new axis seems to be emerging: Washington-Rome. One that could counter the old Berlin-Paris axis — a partnership against the dominance of Germany and France, of Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron.
"We're partners now," Trump said.
Macron and Trump in Washington in April — Photo: Ron Sachs/CNP/ZUMA
Trump and Conte have a lot in common. They both have a Russia-friendly policy and are sceptical about European sanctions. They don't think much of free trade and wish to overturn international treaties: Trump grumbles against NAFTA, while Conte has spoken against CETA, a trade deal between the EU and Canada. And they both stand for a tough immigration policy. Recently, Trump separated families who had crossed the Mexican border illegally. Over the past couple of weeks the government in Rome has prevented several ships carrying rescued refugees from entering Italian ports.
"I really, honestly, believe the prime minister is going to do a tremendous job," Trump said of Conte. "I hope more leaders will follow this example, including leaders in Europe," he added, in what was perhaps a reference to Chancellor Merkel, whose refugee policy the U.S. president finds too liberal.
Conte may prove to be a useful tool for the U.S. government, to widen the gap within the European Union. Trump is the first American president since the end of World War II who wants a weak, rather than strong Europe. Conte, it seems, shares this goal. And Italy is not just any country on the continent: It's a founding member of the EU and the third largest economy in the eurozone. Rome, therefore, does have influence and can hamper European integration in many respects.
So far, the Italians haven't met the powerful in Berlin and Paris entirely at eye level — but now they have Trump at their side. During the meeting, he drew several parallels between himself and Conte. Both are political outsiders and stand for change in their countries, the U.S. president said. And they fought against the same challenge, namely to protect their citizens from terrorism and "uncontrolled" immigration. The Italian people have borne a large part of the European burden in the refugee crisis. "There's so many things that bring us together," Conte said, before adding that Italy and the United States are almost like "twin countries."
We're partners now.
But what is Trump hoping to gain by allying himself with Conte and thus pushing forward a fragmentation of the EU? Above all, advantage in trade policy. So far, the U.S. government has had to negotiate its contracts with the EU Commission — which is very self-confident, since Europe is an important market for American companies. If Trump could sign agreements with individual European countries instead, he would probably be able to impose significantly tougher conditions on them. For a president who sees the world through the eyes of a businessman, this is an important point.
Initially, things were good between Trump and Macron. Now Conte has replaced the Frenchman. A few weeks ago, at the G7 Summit in Canada, it was clear for the first time that the two were like peas in a pod. It was there that Trump proposed bringing Russia back into the group, after it was expelled in 2014 following the annexation of Crimea, in violation of international law. Everyone was outraged, except for one: Conte.
Merkel and Macron were quickly able to talk the Italian out of the idea — after all, he had only been in office for a few days, at that time. But it's quite possible that those times are now over. And that Conte, now that the alliance with Trump is solidifying, no longer listens so quickly to his fellow Europeans.