ROME — Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is a soft-spoken law professor who sticks to his scripted remarks and relishes his low profile. He shows less bravado and holds far less power than the other foreign leaders who have managed to win admiration from President Trump, such as Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.
But Conte leads a government that is anything but low-key — composed of anti-establishment forces that are closing the door to migrants, questioning the ground rules of Italy’s relationship with Europe and in favor of drawing closer to Russia.
As a result, Conte and Trump have found unlikely common ground and offer a rare example of transatlantic cooperation at a time when other governments in Western Europe view the White House with anxiety and dismay.
Trump has strained long-standing alliances by imposing tariffs, bashing political decisions in Germany and Britain, and berating NATO allies for their military spending. He has called the European Union a trade “foe.”
But when it comes to Italy, Trump has been notably complimentary, calling Conte a “really great guy” and opting for a meeting with the prime minister in Washington, scheduled for Monday.
“He will do a great job — the people of Italy got it right!” Trump said about Conte on Twitter in June, after the two met at an otherwise turbulent Group of Seven summit.
Conte reciprocated, posting a smiling photo of the two leaders on his official Facebook page. “Historic alliance, new friendship,” Conte wrote.
A month later, at another rancorous summit, Trump again saw parallels with Conte.
“I probably, at least partially, won an election because of immigration,” Trump said during a news conference at NATO headquarters. “Giuseppe, who I got to know quite well over the last month and a half, he won his election because of strong immigration policies on Italy.”
In fact, Conte became Italy’s leader not by winning an election, but because of a coalition deal between two anti-establishment political parties. Both the far-right League and the more politically amorphous Five Star Movement had leaders who aspired to become prime minister. As a compromise in forming a joint government, they plucked Conte — who’d already been tapped by the Five Star Movement as a potential cabinet minister — from the ranks of academia. He had no political experience. He had almost no public profile. For much of his life, he had been a center-left voter. Suddenly, he was in charge of Western Europe’s first fully populist government.
Some of the Italian government’s DNA resembles that of Trump’s. Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister and the most dominant figure in the government, is a constant social media user who talks about “fake news,” has turned away migrants and uses the slogan “Italians First.” Salvini attended a Trump campaign rally in Pennsylvania two years ago, and he said in a recent interview with The Washington Post that he appreciates Trump’s follow-through on promises, such as the relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
Italy’s new leaders, after rattling global markets in late May, have said they have no intention to leave Europe’s common currency. But their spending plans, yet to be put into effect, could cause a clash with the European Union over budget restriction rules. Italy has also raised concerns about European sanctions on Russia, saying they hurt Italian firms. When Trump in June suggested that Russia should be readmitted to the Group of Seven industrial nations, Conte was the only other leader at the summit to signal his agreement — though he then softened his stance, telling reporters, according to Reuters, that sanctions shouldn’t be dropped “overnight.”
“This Italian government is trying to be less Europeanist and more Atlantic,” said Stefania Panebianco, who teaches about politics at the University of Catania and the LUISS School of Government. “More pro-U.S. and less pro-European.”
So far, Conte has played a less visible role in the government than Salvini, and some politicians in Rome describe the interior minister as the de facto premier. But Conte has made some waves within Europe, pushing for new rules on the continent for processing and distributing migrants arriving across the Mediterranean.
Tensions within Italy’s coalition flared earlier this month when Salvini wanted to block port access to an Italian coast guard ship returning with rescued migrants. Conte gave a green light for the migrants to come ashore after a rare intervention from Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella.
“We’re talking about somebody who had no political experience and no wish to be involved until very recently,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of the Italian International Affairs Institute. “But it has to be said that, so far, he is growing into something — something that tends to be more constructive than destructive.”
In a recent interview with Il Fatto Quotidiano, Conte was asked by the newspaper’s editor, Marco Travaglio, why he had so far “spoken so little to Italians.”
“Because I feel that Italians are interested in government initiatives, not words,” said Conte, who then explained that he felt he was getting accustomed to the job.
“I forget the fact that only some days before, I was a private citizen who would watch [Angela] Merkel and [Emmanuel] Macron on TV. I immediately entered my new role.”
The White House, in its release about Conte’s visit, said the leaders will hold a private conversation as well as a bilateral meeting. Conte could look for U.S. support as Rome tries to play a lead role in the rebuilding of Libya, a strategically important energy partner that is also helping Italy to restrict migration traffic. Trump and Conte also figure to discuss trade — a key source of tension between the United States and Europe, even after a recent truce has assuaged fears of a trade war.
“Having zero tariffs in all sectors would mean reinforcing the Atlantic alliance,” said Licia Mattioli, deputy president of Confindustria, the main Italian industry association. “America is Europe’s natural ally. Let’s go back to a relationship that is serene and profitable for all parties involved.”
Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.