Tuesday

26th Mar 2019

Analysis

Trump befriends Conte, depresses EU

  • Conte (l) with Trump at the G7 summit in Canada (Photo: g7.gc.ca)

Most EU leaders found US president Donald Trump "depressing" at the G7 meeting, but one of them, Italy's Giuseppe Conte, made a new friend.

"Just met the new prime minister of Italy, Giuseppe, a really great guy. He will be honoured in Washington, at the White House, shortly," Trump tweeted after leaving a summit of the Group of Seven, or G7, powerful countries in Canada on Saturday (9 June).

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  • Merkel failed to make an impact (Photo: g7.gc.ca)

"He will do a great job - the people of Italy got it right!", Trump added.

Italian people, much less Trump, had never heard of Conte until 1 June, when the law professor was hoisted to his post by two populist parties, 5 Star Movement (M5S) and League, who formed a government.

The US leader has become a nightmare for the EU.

He has questioned Nato solidarity, walked out of deals on free trade, climate change, and nuclear arms control, and imposed tariffs on European exports.

The new Italian government is also turning into a bad dream.

It plans to abandon EU fiscal discipline, threatening the euro.

It has called for an end to Russia sanctions, putting in doubt EU foreign policy, and it looks capable of drastic unilateralism on migration, after it blocked a rescue ship, with 629 people on board, from coming to Italy on Sunday, telling them to go to Malta instead.

Conte broke with the EU at his first international engagement, the G7 meeting, by joining Trump's call to invite Russia back into the club despite its military adventures in Europe.

The mild-mannered academic also doffed his cap to French and German leaders Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, who say Russia sanctions should stay until it complies with the so-called Minsk ceasefire pact on Ukraine.

"Italy thinks it's important to have a dialogue with Russia, but this doesn't mean that the system of sanctions can be overcome overnight. The system of sanctions is linked to the Minsk agreement, which is not fully implemented yet," he said.

His puppet-masters, M5S chief Luigi Di Maio and League boss Matteo Salvini, were less circumspect in their remarks, however.

"Sanctions on Russia damage us," Di Maio said on Friday, ahead of an EU summit later this month that will decide on their future.

Migrants were potential terrorists and Austria was right to close mosques and to deport imams in recent days, Salvini said.

"We're under attack. Remember all the alarms on terrorism infiltration in [migrant] arrivals. Italy's being attacked from the south, not the east," he said, urging Nato to stop asylum seekers from coming instead of trying to deter Russian aggression.

New wave

The Italian populists are part of a new wave in Europe, which also includes right-wing regimes in Hungary and Poland, anti-immigrant governments in Austria and Slovenia, and eurosceptic parties in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and further afield.

They have looked to Brexit and Trump for their lead, whose chumminess toward Conte stood in vivid contrast to his contempt of the EU elite.

The US president quit the summit and said in a tweet that America withdrew its signature from the G7 communique on world affairs.

Macron had previously said that what was once the G8 (with Russia), now G7, might become a 'G6+1', but Trump's tweets turned it into a 'G6-1', with the '1' kicking it in the teeth.

"Fair Trade is now to be called Fool Trade … Sorry, we cannot let our friends, or enemies, take advantage of us," Trump fulminated.

"We protect Europe ... at great financial loss, and then get unfairly clobbered on trade. Change is coming!", he said, once again calling into doubt America's transatlantic security vows.

"The US pays close to the entire cost of Nato-protecting many of these same countries that rip us off on trade (they pay only a fraction of the cost - and laugh!). The European Union had a $151bn surplus - should pay much more for military!", Trump said, repeating an incorrect figure, which is really $50bn smaller.

Trade war

"Sobering and a little depressing," Merkel said after the fiasco.

She said there "remain good reasons to fight for the transatlantic partnership," but noted that the EU would impose punitive tariffs on American products in retaliation, in the first shots of a trade war that will harm relations further still.

"We won't let ourselves be ripped off again and again. Instead, we act too," she told German TV on Sunday, posing the question whose side Conte will stand on when EU leaders meet Trump next time, at a Nato summit in Brussels in July.

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