U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday praised Italy's new premier for his handling of immigration issues, after a meeting that touched on trade and paved the way for Italy to hold a conference over Libya, source of migrant traffic crossing the Mediterranean.
Prior to meeting with Giuseppe Conte at the White House, Trump said Italy "has taken a very firm stance on the border" and other European countries should follow their lead on migration issues.
"I agree very much with what you are doing with respect to migration, and illegal immigration, and even legal immigration," Trump told Conte in the Oval Office as reporters looked on. "He has taken a very firm stance on the border, a stance that few countries have taken. And frankly he is doing the right thing in my opinion."
At a news conference after the pair met, Trump spoke of the "enormous strain" Italy has faced and tied it to his own desire to push through comprehensive immigration reform.
"We're the laughingstock of the world," said Trump. "We have the worst immigration laws anywhere in the world."
Styling themselves as outsiders
Trump greeted Conte as "my new friend" and said they bonded at the recent G7 meetings in Canada, crediting the prime minister for taking a "firm stance on the border." The president said the U.S. and Italy would pursue a new strategic dialogue on security issues, terrorism and immigration.
"We are both outsiders to politics. Can you believe it?" Trump said during a joint news conference with Conte. Trump said both were "determined to protect the rights and needs and interests and dreams of our citizens and we will do that."
Conte, in his remarks, said both he and Trump were leading "governments that represent change, they were chosen by citizens to change the status quo."
He cited Italy's "innovative approach" on immigration and expressed support for Trump's recent talks with Russia Vladimir Putin, though he said sanctions against Russia could not be lifted overnight.
Italy under Conte's new government has pushed for the European Union to accept tens of thousands of migrants coming across the Mediterranean Sea every year. The meeting follows a recent standoff over a private aid boat carrying more than 200 people who were rescued at sea. Italy, Malta and France all refused to let the vessel disembark.
Italy has committed operational resources to help patrols off the coast of Libya, the busiest departure point, to deter migrants arriving by boat.
Italy wants conference to discuss Libya
Conte has said Italy wants to hold an international conference on Libya. He was eager to get Trump's blessing for the gathering and has proposed a conference in Rome, backed by the United States.
He appeared to get Trump's support on the issue, saying the U.S. had agreed Italy would become "the main interlocutor for the main issues that need to be faced … with particular reference to Libya.
"In agreement with President Trump, I'm going to organize a conference on Libya," Conte told reporters at the White House after their meeting. "We would like to deal [with] and discuss all of the issues related to the Libyan people, involving all of the stakeholders, actors, protagonists in the whole of the Mediterranean," he said.
Conte leads the euroskeptic coalition of the 5-Star Movement, which considers itself anti-establishment, and the right-wing, north-based League party.
Discussions touch on trade
The two leaders also discussed trade. During their talks, Trump noted the U.S. trade deficit with Italy, a member of the EU, and said he was certain "we'll straighten that out pretty quickly."
Trump last week avoided escalating a trade dispute with the European Union and his administration is expected to begin negotiations quickly on avoiding tariffs on automobiles and removing trade barriers. But it followed tensions between the U.S. and EU over trade and the transatlantic alliance.
Trump has commented several times since becoming president on the subject of immigration in Europe.
In an interview earlier this month with British tabloid The Sun, he said that immigration had "changed the fabric" of the continent.
"I think allowing millions and millions of people to come into Europe is very, very sad," said Trump. "I think you are losing your culture. Look around. You go through certain areas that didn't exist 10 or 15 years ago."
Trump did not elaborate on what he thought were the characteristics of European culture.
Trump's forceful comments on immigration came as politicians back in Italy hurled accusations over an incident that has drawn national attention.
Politically charged incident in Italy
Discus thrower Daisy Osakue, born in Italy to Nigerian parents, was training for the upcoming European championships on the weekend when assailants hurled eggs at her face. She suffered a cornea injury.
Local police questioned whether she had been victim of racism, saying there had been similar assaults that had targeted white locals. However, opposition politicians swept aside those concerns and the violence dominated local media.
"The attacks against people of different colour skin is now an EMERGENCY. This is now obvious, NOBODY can deny it, especially if they sit in government," former centre-left prime minister Matteo Renzi wrote on Twitter.
At least eight migrants from various African countries have been shot by air rifles since the start of June in possible racist attacks. In addition, a Roma baby was hit by an air pellet and risks being paralyzed for life. The Italian who fired the gun has denied aiming at the child.
The UN migration agency (OIM) said there had been 11 racist attacks in Italy since mid-June. "[This represents] an
extremely worrying trend of violence and racism," it said.
Salvini, in a statement in response to the clamour over Osakue, rejected as "nonsense" allegations that Italy has an issue.
"Is there a racism emergency in Italy? Don't be stupid," said Salvini.
Saying he stood alongside any victim of violence, he added: "Certainly the mass immigration allowed by the left hasn't helped matters."
Domestically, immigration continues to be a preoccupation for Trump, even as his administration has experienced vociferous criticism in recent weeks over a policy of separating children from adults who made a claim for asylum after arriving between points of entry.
In tweets on both Sunday and Monday, and at the news conference with Conte, Trump said he's willing to close the government in the fall over border security issues, including money he wants to build a desired wall along parts of the southern border shared with Mexico.
Trump campaigned on the promise of building a wall to deter illegal immigration and making Mexico pay for it. Mexico has refused.
We must have Border Security, get rid of Chain, Lottery, Catch & Release Sanctuary Cities – go to Merit based Immigration. Protect ICE and Law Enforcement and, of course, keep building, but much faster, THE WALL!
Trump has received some wall money from Congress, and likely will get more, though the total is short of the $ 25 billion US he has requested.
When asked by a reporter if he needs a commitment for the full amount to avoid a shutdown, Trump said he would "leave room for negotiation" but that it wasn't an idle threat.
Both the Senate and the House will have a short window to act before government funding expires at midnight Sept. 30.
Republicans are cool to Trump's threats of a shutdown so close to upcoming congressional elections. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell predicted in a radio interview last week that a shutdown that close to the Nov. 6 midterm elections would not happen.