WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden on Thursday thanked far-right Premier Giorgia Meloni for Italy's steady backing of Ukraine, offering a warm welcome to the White House to a leader that his administration saw with some trepidation when she rose to power last year as the head of Italy’s first far-right-led 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 came as Italy prepares to take up the presidency next year of the Group of Seven industrialized nations.
“Italy and the United States are also standing strong with Ukraine, and I compliment you on your very strong support in defending against Russian atrocities, and that’s what they are," Biden told Meloni at the start of their Oval Office meeting, in which he warmly spoke of Meloni as his friend. “And I thank the Italian people. I want to thank them for supporting you and supporting Ukraine. It makes a big difference.”
Meloni, who was making her first White House visit as premier, said relations between the U.S. and Italy should remain strong regardless of the "political colors" of who is in power in the two countries.
“Evidently, I’m in sync with the Republican Party,” Meloni said of her political ideology at a news conference following her meeting with Biden. “That doesn’t impede me from having an excellent relationship” with the U.S. president.
White House officials said the leaders' agenda was focused on Ukraine and China as well as the stream of migration from North Africa to Europe's southern shores. More than 1,900 migrants have died or disappeared in the Mediterranean so far this year, bringing the total of dead and missing since 2014 to 27,675, according to the International Organization for Migration.
The Biden administration viewed Meloni’s predecessor, the economist and former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi, as an intellectual force and one of its strongest allies in Europe. Soon after Meloni’s victory in September, Biden warned about the rise of hard-right populism in Europe and in the United States.
“You just saw what’s happened in Italy in that election,” Biden said in an address to the Democratic Governors Association after Meloni’s victory. “You’re seeing what’s happening around the world. And the reason I bother to say that is we can’t be sanguine about what’s happening here, either.”
Meloni became Italy’s first far-right leader to serve as premier 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.
But before the visit, the White House played down Biden's initial skepticism about Meloni.
“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. “Italy is a NATO ally and they are a very competent NATO ally and they’ve been a tremendous supporter of Ukraine.”
Before her White House meeting, Meloni headed to the U.S. Capitol to meet with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as well as other lawmakers.
In remarks to reporters after meeting McCarthy, Meloni said it remained critical for the West to remain united in helping Ukraine defend its sovereignty.
“For without a world based on the international law, we would live in a world of chaos,” Meloni said. "That's not the world we want to live in. We want to live in a world in which we can respect sovereignty and freedom.”
Her Brothers of Italy party, named after the first words of Italy’s national anthem, has roots in a party founded by nostalgists for fascism following the demise of dictator Benito Mussolini’s regime. But 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 of the child.
When Meloni ran for premier, 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.
On the eve of Meloni's visit, the White House sought to stress the U.S. and Italy's close cooperation on Ukraine.
But White House officials note 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 U.S.-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.
Meloni has also expressed skepticism about Italy's ties with China through the Belt and Road Initiative. In 2019, Italy became the first and only G7 nation to join China’s ambitious infrastructure building effort, despite objections from the United States.
The project was launched by Beijing in 2013 by President Xi Jinping to link East Asia and Europe through physical infrastructure. The ambition for the project has expanded to Africa, Oceania and Latin America, significantly broadening China’s economic and political influence. Italy must either renew or abandon the accord by early next year.
D'Emilio reported from Rome.