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Biden and Meloni of Italy May Find Common Ground

Not long ago, Giorgia Meloni rose in Italian politics campaigning against migrants and the European Union while seeking alliances with supporters of Donald J. Trump. Now prime minister of Italy, she would seem to have little in common with President Biden, who once compared the hard-right philosophy she shared with Mr. Trump to “semi-fascism.”

But when Ms. Meloni visits Mr. Biden at the White House on Thursday, far from being a collision of worldviews, the meeting will, perhaps surprisingly, mark how much the two leaders are in sync on major international issues, such as support for Ukraine, suspicion of China and the need to strengthen NATO.

There are still real fault lines between them, such as gay rights, which, along with migration, originally made Mr. Biden nervous about Ms. Meloni. But the meeting will amount to a recognition of what many analysts see as her shift to the center since she won elections and became prime minister last fall.

In Europe’s pitched debate about whether it is better to keep marginalizing far-right forces or bring them into the fold, Ms. Meloni, analysts say, has emerged as Exhibit A in favor of the normalizing powers of governing.

Since her election in September, Ms. Meloni, who was arguably the north star of Europe’s far right, has eased the concerns of many European liberals and moderates who had sounded “the alarm for Italian democracy” when she was poised to take leadership last year.

She instead has passed a measured budget, dialed way down her famous invective — which made it onto a dance track — and largely kept up Italy’s commitments to receive billions of euros in European Union pandemic recovery funds. She has turned away from Marine Le Pen in France, as well as her allies in Hungary and Poland, who now oppose her on the migration issue.

For years, Ms. Meloni was squarely on their side, denouncing migration from Africa as a plot by bankers to replace Italian workers. She called for a naval blockade against migrants and threatened to sink the smugglers’ ships — “without people inside,” she clarified in an interview with The New York Times last year.

In February, at least 94 people from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria, including women and children, drowned in a shipwreck just yards off the Italian coast, prompting questions about whether Italy could have saved them.

The tragedy pushed Ms. Meloni to call on, and work with, Europe to tackle the issue.

In recent days, Ms. Meloni has emerged as an unlikely leader on the issue for Europe, spearheading a group of nations from Europe, the Middle East and Africa in a key agreement to slow illegal immigration by not only by cracking down on people smuggling, but also by addressing the pressures that push people to migrate.

The meeting produced commitments to finance development projects, including on renewable energy, to fight climate change and to improve the lives of destitute people who seek to come to Europe.

She has also said that her government was willing to take in more migrants through legal routes. “Europe and Italy needed immigration,” she said, as her government planned to issue more than 400,000 work permits to non-E.U. nationals between this year and 2025.

This month, she played a key role in another important deal between the European Union and Tunisia, a primary launching pad for migrants, to tighten borders in exchange for payouts to President Kais Saied, an autocrat who has dismantled the country’s democracy.

“A blueprint for the future,” said Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission’s leader, who joined Ms. Meloni in shaking the Tunisian president’s hand.

Skeptics of Ms. Meloni’s centrist turn wonder how long it will last if Mr. Trump makes it back into the White House, and they note that she is leading a grand coalition of right-wing parties ahead of elections for the European Parliament next year.

Many, including L.G.B.T.Q.+ groups that have written this week to Mr. Biden, also point to what they see as her erosion of protections for gay rights and her party’s proposal to criminalize Italians, even those outside Italy, who have children through surrogacy, which has been illegal in the country since 2004. “Maternity is not for sale,” she said at a May conference. “Wombs cannot be rented out.”

But commentators who are optimistic about Ms. Meloni’s turn to the center hope she will be further swayed by the humiliating defeat of her close allies in Spain’s far-right Vox party in elections there last Sunday.

“The flop of Vox is a problem for Meloni of the opposition but it is a big opportunity for the Meloni of government,” wrote Claudio Cerasa, the editor of Il Foglio newspaper, reflecting the prime minister’s seemingly split personality between far-right campaigner and moderate stateswoman.

He argued that Ms. Meloni should learn the lesson of Vox’s defeat, and keep turning away from the extremes and toward the majority of Europe’s voters. “Distance oneself from the old allies and get closer to the old enemies.”

Ahead of the meeting with Mr. Biden, other establishment voices argued that the occasion provided an opportunity for Ms. Meloni to turn away from Mr. Trump, too. “Meloni should disavow Trump when she meets Biden,” read the headline on the website of the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.

But Ms. Meloni has for years studiously sought a close relationship with Mr. Trump’s Republican Party, and it hailed her election as a major victory.

Back in 2019, when her party was struggling on the margins of Italian politics, she proudly called herself “the only Italian” invited to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference known as CPAC. She spoke on the same day as Mr. Trump, and from her seat in the audience gushed about his remarks on social media even as he delivered them.

“Democracy in Europe has become a sham,” she said when it was her turn to talk. “They want to destroy our identity and our civilization to turn us into undefined citizens of the world and model consumers.” She spoke at CPAC again last year.

In the Times interview last summer, when her election seemed assured, she said: “Trump did some very good things when he was president. For example, in foreign policy, we had no problems. There were no wars. I think that Obama was the worst president about foreign affairs.”

The one consistent line through her own foreign policy has been her pro-Americanism, which has deep roots. She got her start in parties populated by former fascists who harbored suspicions about democracy, but the United States and NATO were often seen as a necessary allies against the greatest evil, Communism.

Ms. Meloni has been rock solid in her support of Ukraine against Russian aggression, which she sees as an existential threat to the continent. Her ideological roots have long been suspicious of the East, and she also is contemplating pulling Italy out of a key economic agreement with China. She is expected to seek American assurances of increased trade if she does.

In 2019, the populist government of Giuseppe Conte made Italy the first and only country in the Group of 7, a coalition of the world’s largest economies, to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a vast infrastructure program that critics saw as a Trojan Horse into Europe, Africa and beyond. The deal has proved much more lucrative for Beijing. Italy has seen only a small uptick in exports to China.

“You can have good relations, even in important areas, with Beijing, without these necessarily being part of an overall strategic plan,” Ms. Meloni said in a May interview. She told reporters recently that Mr. Biden, whom she has met before at international forums, had never brought up with Italy’s participation in the Chinese program.

“The president of the United States has never directly raised the question with me,” she said.

That may change on Thursday.

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Mohammad SHiblu

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