- - Thursday, June 14, 2018


The Group of 7 economic summit in Quebec last week was not quite a family feud, but it didn’t bore anyone. President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau got in a few licks on each other, Mr. Trump’s “bromance” with French President Emmanuel Macron appeared to be on the rocks, and his relations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May, never particularly warm, continued to be strained if not frosty. But Mr. Trump struck up a good relationship with newly installed Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Their relations showed a little bonhomie rather than bashing.

The president tweeted good cheer: “Just met the new Prime Minister of Italy, @GiuseppeConteIT, a really great guy. He will be honored in Washington, at the @WhiteHouse, shortly. He will do a great job — the people of Italy got it right!” Then he flew off to Singapore.

Giuseppe Conte is the 58th prime minister since the end of World War II, a testament, perhaps, to the chaotic and unstable nature of Italian politics. He’s a law professor with no prior political experience, and until he was tapped for the job after an inconclusive parliamentary election in March, nobody in Italy had heard much about him. The establishment parties had got a walloping, and the center-left coalition, led by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Democrats, won less than a quarter of the vote.

The establishment conservative party, led by another former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, fared even worse with only 14 percent of the vote. The president and Mr. Conte felt a kinship for having similarly upset the elites. The two big winners in Italy were upstart populist parties; the right-wing League and the ideologically mysterious, but undoubtedly fervently anti-establishment, Five Star Movement. Months of jockeying have followed, and eventually Lega and the Five Star Movement united to form a coalition.

The new Italian prime minister and President Emmanuel Macron of France traded insults — the Europeans have always cultivated an ancient art for the diplomatic insult — and to make matters even livelier, Italy has installed Western Europe’s first populist government. The familiar stagnant economy and the immigration crisis are credited with the ousting of the Italian establishment, much like Mr. Trump’s upset of the American establishment. Perhaps there’s a swamp in Rome, too. More than 600,000 people have reached Italy from Africa by boat over the past five years, and about 500,000 migrants are thought be in Italy yet.

Push came to shove this week when Italy closed its ports to a humanitarian rescue ship called the Aquarius, with 629 migrants aboard. After both Italy and Malta refused to allow the ship to dock on its shores, the Aquarius sailed off to Spain, escorted by two Italian naval vessels. It’s expected to land somewhere in Spain this weekend. The plight of the Aquarius set off the row between France and Italy. Emmanuel Macro exploded with undiplomatic wrath. He accused Prime Minister Conte of “cynicism and irresponsibility” for closing the Italian ports, and Mr. Conte threatened to cancel a scheduled meeting with him in Paris.

Prime Minister Conte said he was not prepared to take criticism from a country that regularly stops migrants on their shared border, and he demanded the ritual apology. The French said it had not received a formal request for an apology, and hinted that none would be forthcoming. In the Italian parliament, word bombs rained on the French. “We have nothing to learn about generosity, voluntarism, welcoming and solidarity from anyone,” the Italian interior minister thundered. After everyone took cover, the two prime ministers patched up their differences. Neither war nor a duel with an exchange of croissants or creampuffs at 40 paces seemed particularly imminent.

But the new Italian government is behaving in ways sure to upset the established order. Mr. Conte backed President Trump’s call to readmit Russia to the G7 and enlarge it once more to the G8. It’s a not an unreasonable suggestion, given the need to cooperate with Russia on many issues, but it’s a scandalous one to Angela Merkel and her friends.

“My aim is to guarantee a peaceful life for these youths in Africa and for our children in Italy,” the Italian interior minister said. He invoked a parliamentary slogan that paid dividends in the recent election campaign: “We will shut the ports.” The Italian insistence on its territorial integrity led to a dressing down from the French government.

Prime Minister Conte can expect a warmer audience when he visits Washington. Talk of walls, closed ports, and national sovereignty goes down well with the current occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, even if Mr. Macron doesn’t like it.

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