Matteo Salvini: Italy wants to be Washington's closest partner in Europe

Angela Giuffrida in Rome and Julian Borger in Washington
Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP

Matteo Salvini has said Italy wants to be Washington’s closest partner in Europe during the hard-right leader’s visit to the US capital for talks with the Trump administration.

Salvini made it clear that he sees an opportunity to forge a closer US-Italian relationship at a time of European turmoil and alignment between populist governments in both countries.

After a meeting with the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, Italy’s deputy prime minister told journalists: “At a moment when European Union institutions are fragile and changing significantly, Italy wants to be the most solid, effective, coherent and credible partner for the US.”

Salvini was also due to meet the vice-president, Mike Pence, in the White House on Monday, and it was left unclear whether there would also be a brief encounter with Donald Trump, as a gesture of political support.

Salvini has been nurturing relations with Trump since the latter’s presidential election campaign, and has said that while other countries have “chosen different paths”, Italy wanted to return to being the “most important partner in continental Europe for the biggest western democracy”.

“And not only for economic and commercial interests,” he told reporters after arriving in Washington. “But also due to our common vision of the world, of values, of work, family and rights.”

Salvini attended a wreath-laying ceremony at the tomb of the unknown soldier at Arlington national cemetery on Monday before going to the White House.

Salvini, whose far-right League party is proposing a flat tax, will also meet Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform.

When asked about the common ground shared with Trump’s administration, Salvini said: “It would be too easy to say, ‘Controlled immigration and the fight against Islamic terrorism.’ Therefore I would say the themes of fiscal reform, taxes, defence and the protection of the national economy. The economic results [in the US] are proving Trump right.”

In its account of the trip, the state department said Pompeo and Salvini talked about “confronting regional security risks from Russia and Iran, the threat posed by China’s predatory investments in key infrastructure and technology in Italy and Europe, and the need for strengthened US-Italy defence cooperation.”

The trip comes amid heightened tensions between Italy and the EU over the country’s huge public debt, as well as discord between the League and its government coalition partner, the Five Star Movement (M5S). The League became Italy’s biggest party when it captured 34% of the vote in the European elections in May, with much speculation that national elections are on the horizon.

Related: Salvini's far-right party tops Italy's EU election polls

Salvini has long admired Trump, posing for a selfie with him during the 2016 presidential campaign and displaying a “Make America Great Again” cap in the background while filming a thank-you message to supporters after victory in the EU elections.

“It’s obvious that Salvini is preparing to become prime minister and so, like all premiers who go to the US, he is seeking to get support,” said Alfonso Giordano, a politics professor at Rome’s Luiss University.

Such support might be more forthcoming if the League split with the M5S, which angered the US after spearheading Italy’s signing of a memorandum of understanding with China to join the controversial Belt and Road project, and for refusing to recognise the Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as president.

This month the EU paved the way towards fining Italy£3.1bn for failing to reduce its debt.

“The infraction procedure could be a way to push Italy into a corner,” added Giordano. “And so the trip to the US is also a way to let it be known that Italy is not completely isolated.”