June 9, 2018 / 9:22 PM / 14 days ago

Italy's anti-elite prime minister plays by rules at G7 club

LA MALBAIE, Quebec (Reuters) - Italy’s new anti-elite Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte played by the rules at the Group of Seven industrialized nations summit, leaving none of the club’s members unhappy in his debut on the international stage in Canada.

Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte addresses the final news conference of the G7 summit in the Charlevoix city of La Malbaie, Quebec, Canada, June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Conte did, however, support U.S President Donald Trump’s unpopular call for Russia to rejoin the group that includes the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Canada and Japan.

“I agree with President (Trump). Russia should be re-admitted into the G8. It is in the interests of everyone,” Conte said in a Twitter post.

Russia was expelled from what was then called the G8 in 2014 because of its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

“Overall an encouraging debut,” said one European official as the G7 summit drew to a close and the Italian premier had not gone so far as to break the ranks of the European countries as feared by some. “He was low-key, moderate, aware of the fact that leaders were weighing him, willing to engage and show pro-European credentials.”

EU Council President Donald Tusk hailed what he called a “first and very good, promising meeting” with Conte, while EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said he “didn’t see divergences between Italy and the rest of the European Union over trade.”

A little-known law professor, Conte, 53, emerged from obscurity last month when he was chosen to lead the coalition of the 5-Star Movement and the far-right League.

Conte appeared to break with the EU line during his inaugural speech in the Italian parliament this week when he called for a review of EU sanctions on Russia.

He landed at the summit in La Malbaie, Quebec, just 48 hours after taking power, forcing European partners to guess what goals Rome would pursue at the summit.

U.S. President Donald Trump railed against trade practices he called unfair to the United States at the meeting, where leaders agreed on Saturday to fight protectionism and reform the World Trade Organization.

The 5-Star and the League’s electoral victory in the March election has been attributed in part to their promise to prioritize the problems of Italian people, echoing Trump’s “America First” position. The stance had generated some anxiety about Italy breaking ranks and standing by Trump against the European partners.

But Conte said before the meeting began that Rome would have undertaken “a moderate line” over the trade dispute.

At his informal meeting with Trump, the U.S. president congratulated Conte for the “great electoral victory” and invited him to the White House. In a Twitter post on Saturday, Trump said Conte would visit Washington “shortly” and said: “He will do a great job - the people of Italy got it right!”

Conte’s chemistry seems to have been good also with French President Emmanuel Macron.

In a meeting with Europeans, Conte relayed the wish of the Italian people to have a dialogue with Russia, and called for space for that desire in the final communique, a French delegation source said.

“We all tried hard to find a wording acceptable for everybody. At the end all the participants smiled and said ‘look this is the first example of European unity coming from the new Italian government since the elections’,” the source said.

Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte addresses the final news conference of the G7 summit in the Charlevoix city of La Malbaie, Quebec, Canada, June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Reporting by Giselda Vagnoni; additional reporting by Jan Strupczewski and Jean-Baptiste Vey; editing by Grant McCool

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