Sáb. Jun 15th, 2024

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When Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni walks into the Oval Office on Thursday, her transformation will be complete. 

Gone is the ghoulish caricature of an extremist monster, sympathetic to Moscow, whose party was descended from fascists, and in her place stands a pragmatic conservative willing to do business with a grateful international mainstream. 

For U.S. President Joe Biden and Ukraine’s backers in the West, securing Meloni’s long-term commitment to the war effort is vital: Italy will assume the leadership of the G7 next year, at what’s likely to be a critical time in the conflict. 

Initially, the signs weren’t good. Before she was elected last September, Meloni alarmed officials in Western capitals with her blunt brand of far-right populism. She banged the drum for nationalist causes, vowing to slam the brakes on immigration, stand up to the European Union’s leadership in Brussels and even opposed sanctioning Russia over Ukraine. 

Yet 10 months since Meloni won power, the picture has changed dramatically. She will receive VIP treatment at the White House Thursday, with a welcome from Biden that will be as sincere as for any other G7 ally. While the Democrat and the far-right populist share almost nothing in their political outlooks, their handshake is likely to be one of mutual relief. 

Meloni’s Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, leader of the center-right Forza Italia party, told POLITICO that the Ukraine war had bolstered Italy’s relationship with the U.S. The Meloni government’s “three polar stars” are now the EU, the U.N. and NATO, he said.

“Italy is part of the Western alliance and wants to be a protagonist in the Western alliance and in particular in its alliance with the U.S.A.,” Tajani said. “Since the crisis in Ukraine, our relationship on issues of security and shared policy with the U.S.A. has been getting stronger.”

Putin’s pals

It is a far cry from the sort of rhetoric that had, until recently, emanated from Rome. 

As leader of the hard right Brothers of Italy, she supported Putin’s strongman politics while in opposition, congratulating him after his re-election by saying “the will of the people appears unequivocal.” 

After Moscow’s 2014 invasion of Crimea she repeatedly opposed sanctions against Russia, citing the need to protect Italian exports. During the pandemic Meloni endorsed Russia’s Sputnik vaccines. In a TV interview in 2022 before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, she highlighted how essential it was to remain on good terms with Putin and accused Biden of “using foreign policy to cover up the problems he has at home.” 

If Meloni seemed like a problem to Western leaders, her coalition partners were an even worse prospect. Matteo Salvini, leader of the right wing League, who once wore a T-shirt printed with Putin’s face to the EU Parliament, attempted to arrange a peace mission to Moscow with flights paid by the Russian embassy. 

And Meloni’s coalition partner Silvio Berlusconi, who led the center-right Forza Italia party until his death in June, blamed Ukraine for the war and had a personal friendship with Vladimir Putin, continuing to exchange gifts with the Russian leader even after the invasion. 

When she took power, there were deep, if private, fears within the White House, according to several Biden administration officials who were granted anonymity to speak candidly, that Meloni might shatter the G7 support for Ukraine. 

But Meloni surprised U.S. officials at the G7 summit in Hiroshima in May with just how eager she seemed to build a strong relationship with Biden, according to two government officials who witnessed their interactions. 

At the NATO summit earlier this month in Vilnius, Meloni stood just a few feet from both Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy when the G7 nations announced additional security guarantees for Kyiv that were meant as something of a make-good after NATO declined to fast-track Ukraine’s membership.

At the NATO summit earlier this month in Vilnius, Meloni stood just a few feet from both Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy | Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images

With Italy set to take over the presidency of the G7 in January, Meloni’s support for the cause has prompted sighs of relief from both sides of the Atlantic.

“The President and the Prime Minister have built a good, productive relationship as they have worked together closely on a variety of issues such as our support for Ukraine and our approach to China, and President Biden is looking forward to continuing that conversation,” said Adrienne Watson, a spokesperson for Biden’s national security council.

Pleasantly surprised

Biden has told those around him he has been pleasantly surprised by Meloni’s leadership in the war effort but is eager to get to know the Italian leader better, according to multiple administration officials. 

For Alessandro Politi, Director of the NATO Defense College Foundation in Rome, Meloni “understood very quickly that when you get into government you have responsibilities and the U.S.A. is a primary ally.”

Her visit to Kyiv in February was a clear sign she was following “an orthodox path” and a moment when “she convinced the wider international community that she was in charge of the coalition and that her allies had to follow her political line.”

Meloni’s support for the Western stance does not mean the whole of Italy feels the same way. 

Some populists on both the left and right of Italian politics still hold pro-Russian views, and the question of whether it’s right to send arms to Ukraine elicits fierce debate in the media. Italy’s longstanding position on Russia has always been to try to act as a bridge, facilitating good relations between East and West.

But although a majority of Italians are opposed to it, Meloni has continued to back Ukraine with military aid. Ukrainians are “defending freedom and democracy on which our civilization is based,” she told the Italian Senate in March.  

While Biden and Meloni are likely to agree on Ukraine, it is not certain that they will be in harmony on all issues. 

In 2019 Italy became the only G7 country to join China’s Belt and Road global infrastructure initiative. Later this year it is up for renewal, but in the new cold war climate the U.S. expects the deal to be scrapped.

While Meloni has indicated that she might not extend the agreement with Beijing, calling it “a big mistake,” this position is not yet confirmed. If she does return to the more traditional Italian line of walking a middle ground, the cracks in the Biden-Meloni relationship will open up again.