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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 13 November 2018

Trump and populist Italian premier bond over border policy 

Prime Minister Conte offers President Trump rare support among European leaders

President Donald Trump, right, with Giuseppe Conte, Italy's prime minister, in the East Room of the White House, on July 31, 2018. Bloomberg 
President Donald Trump, right, with Giuseppe Conte, Italy's prime minister, in the East Room of the White House, on July 31, 2018. Bloomberg 

United States President Donald Trump and Italy's new premier Giuseppe Conte have bonded over immigration. Mr Trump welcomed the Italian prime minister to the White House for the first time since his rise to power in June, bringing together the two populist leaders.

In a political arena that has cast both as outsiders, president Trump and prime minister Conte struck up a friendship at the recent G7 meetings in Canada, where the US leader credited the Italian premier for taking a "firm stance on the border".

Italy came under fire in June when its new populist government declared that its ports were closed to foreign-flagged rescue ships and made accusations that fellow EU members were failing to share the burden of migrant arrivals.

French President Emmanuel Macron said EU states that refused to accept migrants should face financial penalties. At the time, a German charity vessel with more than 230 migrants was stuck in limbo off the coast of Malta after it was denied permission to dock in Italy.

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“We are two governments of change - many things unite us,” Mr Conte said in Washington on Monday. “Italy and the US are twin countries.”

The Italian premier offers president Trump some rare support among European leaders, echoing his populist rhetoric, scepticism toward the EU status quo and a push to improve relations with Russia. Mr Trump in turn praised Italy’s crackdown on immigration, saying other European countries should follow its example.

But back in Italy, a rise in reports of racially-motivated attacks in recent weeks has led to unease in the country.

In the latest publicised attack on Monday, a young black Italian athlete was subjected to a drive-by assault while walking home in northern Italy. Daisy Osakue, a 22-year-old discus thrower who was born in Italy to Nigerian parents, suffered injuries to her eye after an egg was thrown at her from a car.

A number of other suspected racist incidents have coincided with the implementation of the populist government's anti-immigration crackdown.

Over the weekend, a Moroccan man was killed in a village south of Rome after being chased by people who suspected him of robbery. The 43-year-old crashed the car he was driving and was beaten by his assailants. He later died in hospital.

And last week, a 19-year-old Senegalese migrant was beaten by a group of youths who yelled racist slurs in the Sicilian city of Palermo.

Far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has dismissed claims of growing racism as "nonsense". The new government policies have provoked an outpouring of condemnation from opposition politicians who accuse Mr Salvini of creating a climate of hatred.

But while Italian prime minister Mr Conte may be the closest on policy, he is but the latest in a series of European leaders who have courted the US leader, and the mixed results of predecessors offer a note of caution.

British Prime Minister Theresa May was openly criticised by president Trump when he visited London this month and she also faced a backlash from angry voters. France’s Mr Macron has attempted to craft his own special relationship, through a mixture of tough talk and flattery, but despite this, the US walked out on the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal.