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Move over Macron, Trump has a new European BFF

Move over Macron, there's a new bromance at the White House -- although you'd never have guessed it as President Trum...

Posted: Jul 31, 2018 8:11 PM
Updated: Jul 31, 2018 8:11 PM

Move over Macron, there's a new bromance at the White House -- although you'd never have guessed it as President Trump's new European BFF rocked up Monday.

The eyes of Giuseppe Conte, Italy's new Prime Minister, were darting uncertainly from Trump to the cameras, then back to his host again.

Conte seemed more transfixed by fear rather than fondness, looking uncomfortable inches from perhaps the most unpredictable US leader in recent times.

The last time the pair met was late June at the G7 in Canada, where Trump's ire with his erstwhile allies over trade was at full boil -- although Conte, unlike his counterparts didn't get a tongue lashing, but praise from Trump.

But any qualms he might have fallen from Trump's mercurial favor since then were quickly quelled as they both delivered full doses of mutual adoration at a press conference a couple of hours later.

Trump reminded the world of their similarities: "We had a very good G7 meeting. That's where Giuseppe and I became friends. I think we were probably more closely aligned than anybody else in the room."

His former bestie, French President Emmanuel Macron, may have been the first to throw Trump a state visit, but Conte clearly has what Trump really wants: mutual problems and a similar attitude on how to tackle them.

Most pressing among these: illegal immigration. And on this, the two leaders are in lock step. Trump: "We need border security. Without a border, as this gentleman can tell you also, because the Prime Minister really that was a very big factor in his win, and other people's win in Italy. But it was a big factor in my win. We need border security".

Conte: "It's not only a problem of the migration routes ... But it's also problem of security in general. Because, for instance, through the migration routes, foreign fighters might reach the European territory, agents who could carry the terrorist threat."

So there Conte stood, representing Italy, a founding member of the European Union -- an organization Trump abhors -- basking in a populist revelry, bathing Trump in support over Russia, Trade, Terrorism and even the President's riling of other leaders at NATO.

Italians are rightly fed up of the EU's lackluster support for their migrant crisis. They are undoubtedly bearing the brunt of a wave of Europe bound migration from North Africa with precious little tangible help in recent years.

Europe is pressed by a phenomena not witnessed for two generations and it is increasingly divided over how to handle it. Little wonder Trump finds a ready ally in Conte.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who opened her country to more than a million migrants fleeing the Syrian war, has seen her power and popularity slashed and that of Germany's right-wing, anti-immigrant reactionaries grow.

Her right-wing neighbors in Hungary and Austria are taking the opposite tack. Both have put up anti-migrant fences.

Viktor Orban, Hungary's populist Prime Minister, has even outlawed helping illegal immigrants and warned of a post-Christian Europe.

Along with other leaders in the "Vizegrad Four," Orban and Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis have rejected the EU quotas on taking migrants. Babis has warned Brussels that he is by far from the worst they might have to deal with if migration is not gripped.

In a few weeks, Sweden goes to the polls and like its Scandinavian counterparts is struggling with a populist backlash against a traditional openness and willingness to help those in need. Migration is a divisive issue giving the far right a leg up to challenge traditional dominance by the more liberal center and left.

In most European countries, it is the populists who are milking migration for every vote they can get, and Trump seems more than willing to help them do it.

While in the UK a few weeks ago -- where people voted narrowly to leave the EU two years ago after a campaign during which immigration was talked about at length --Trump spoke of the damage migrants are doing to Europe: "it's changing the culture and is very negative for Europe ... It's not politically correct to say that, but I'll say it and say it loud."

In the months before Trump arrived, his one-time Alt-Right populist guru Steve Bannon had been saying it loud too, touring many European capitals.

He was welcomed in Orban's Budapest in May, more recently enjoying populist hospitality in Conte's Italy, before entrenching himself in a London hotel just before Trump's arrival two weeks ago, hosting meetings with Swedish, Belgian, French and British populist nationalists.

In recent days Bannon has announced he's setting up a European HQ at the heart of the EU in Brussels to unify Europe's populists around his divisive anti-migrant message.

Orban, for one, is publicly applauding him.

The contours of the struggle were made clear recently when Conte's new populist right-wing government refused to allow safe haven to a boatload of mostly Libyan migrants adrift in the Mediterranean.

Spain and France stepped in and saved the migrants' lives. But the bigger issue of how to stem the flow is far from resolved -- each migrant is kindling, fueling Bannon's populist bonfire.

The day Giuseppe Conte left Italy for DC his deputy Matteo Salvini was quoting Hitler's World War two brother in arms, Italy's fascist leader Benito Mussolini "tanto nemici, tanto onore," meaning "many enemies, much honor".

Just to make sure he was enflaming passions, Salvini tweeted the inflammatory comments, his way of celebrating the anniversary of Mussolini's birth.

In her recent book "Fascism: A Warning," former Secretary of State and World War II refugee Madeline Albright describes fascism as "not an ideology of left, right or center, but rather an approach to seizing and consolidating power by an individual or party that claims to be acting in the name of a nation or group."

She should know. Shame on those who refuse to remember.

Despite Bannon, despite Trump, most Europeans feel ever more distant from the millions who once migrated from their shores to America as Trump rides a populist wave away from their true values.

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