Donald Trump has finally met a European leader he can stand for more than a moment: Italy’s bookish new premier, Giuseppe Conte. The former law professor, who was plucked out of obscurity by 5Star’s Luigi Di Maio and the League's Matteo Salvini to be the nominal consensus pick of Rome’s anti-establishment government, is the kind of European Trump can do business with. Or at least that is Trump’s hope.
For the brash billionaire, Europe has been nothing but a nuisance. Despite his proclamations of having a terrific relationship with Germany’s Angela Merkel and a kinship with France’s Emmanuel Macron, it is not difficult to see through the facade. Relations between the US and Europe have been going through significant tremors ever since Trump arrived in the White House eighteen months ago. The European political establishment is none too pleased with the antics and policies of their American colleague. The list of European grievances is long, from Trump’s public bullying tactics to the president’s unwillingness to accept the conventional view of US-Europe ties as invaluable to peace and prosperity.
The feeling is mutual on the other side of the Atlantic. To Trump, the European Union is a colossal swindler of American business; the Germans are laggards on military spending; and Europe’s politicos are politically correct stiffs whose past decisions on migration is changing European culture in a negative way.
Trump has also shown a degree of contempt towards European leaders not witnessed since the George W. Bush era. Just ask Merkel, who has fought with Trump on everything from trade and military spending to the Nord Stream II pipeline. Or ask Macron, who failed to move Trump on the Iran nuclear deal despite his best efforts to suck up to the president. Or Theresa May, who is regarded by Trump as a school principal with terrible negotiating skills.
Who knows, there is always the possibility that Italy’s Giuseppe Conte will run afoul of the big man like Macron and Merkel have. Reciprocity of trade is constantly on Trump’s mind, and the Italians are spending even less of their GDP on defense than Germany is. If there is anything Trump hates, it’s an American ally or partner not meeting their spending commitments to Nato or taking US generosity for granted.
Conte, however, has an opening (however short) to transform Italy into Trump’s favourite European country – at least for the time being. Trump and Conte are already kindred spirits on immigration, Russia, and the EU, so the two men have some shared interests to work with. If Rome takes Berlin’s place as the preeminent American partner on the continent, it would be a diplomatic coup de-grace for the Italians and a major personal achievement for Conte personally.
You never know with Donald Trump given his mercurial nature. But right now, Giuseppe Conte needs to milk this opportunity for all it’s worth.