WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Joe Biden is set for talks with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni on Thursday, welcoming the far-right leader who has won praise from the U.S. administration for her strong backing of the U.S.-led effort to assist Ukraine as it tries to fend off the Russian invasion.
The warm reception comes after initial trepidation in the Biden administration about Meloni, who rose to power last year as the head of Italy's most far-right government since the end of World War II.
Biden administration concerns about her ideology have been eased by her support for Ukraine and her seeming openness to pull back from Italy's participation in China's infrastructure-building Belt and Road Initiative. Her visit comes as Italy prepares to take up the presidency next year of the Group of Seven industrialized nations.
White House officials said that in addition to discussing Ukraine and China, the two leaders were expected to discuss migration from North Africa to Europe's southern shores. More than 1,900 migrants have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean so far this year, bringing the total of dead and missing since 2014 to 27,675, according to the International Organization for Migration.
"On issues of foreign policy, there's been a lot of overlapping and mutually reinforcing approaches that we're taking on with Italy," White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said. "Italy is a NATO ally and they are a very competent NATO ally and they've been a tremendous supporter of Ukraine."
The Biden administration viewed Meloni's predecessor, economist and former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi, as an intellectual force and one of its strongest allies in Europe. Soon after Meloni's victory last September, Biden warned about the rise of hard-right populism in Europe and in the United States.
"You just saw what's happened in Italy in that election," Biden said in an address to the Democratic Governors Association after Meloni's victory last September. "You're seeing what's happening around the world. And the reason I bother to say that is we can't be sanguine about what's happening here either."
Meloni became Italy's first far-right leader to hold the premiership in Italy's post-World War II republic after the Brothers of Italy party she co-founded more than a decade ago emerged as the largest vote-getter in the September 2022 elections.
Her Brothers of Italy party, named after the first words of Italy's national anthem, has roots in a party founded by nostalgists for fascism following the demise of dictator Benito Mussolini's regime. But Meloni brushes off any insinuation that she is nostalgic for Mussolini, writing in her autobiography, "I don't hold the cult of fascism."
Since coming to power, Meloni has faced criticism for her government's direction that city halls stop automatically registering both parents in same-sex couples but instead limit recognition of parental rights only to the biological parent of the child.
When Meloni ran for the premiership, she called for a naval blockade of northern Africa to thwart smugglers' boats overcrowded with migrants determined to reach Europe's southern shores. But once in office, she quickly dropped talk of any blockade.
On the eve of Meloni's visit, the White House sought to stress the U.S. and Italy's close cooperation on Ukraine.
Kirby noted that Meloni has been one of the European Union's most vocal supporters of Ukraine's sovereignty, and Italy has hosted some 170,000 Ukrainians who have fled the war. Meloni has also been a champion of a stronger NATO and views the trans-Atlantic alliance as the linchpin of traditionally strong U.S.-Italian relations.
"From a foreign policy lens, the Biden administration sees this is better than what they could have possibly expected or hoped for," said Max Bergmann, director of the Europe, Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The prime minister has also expressed skepticism about Italy's ties with China through the Belt and Road Initiative. In 2019, Italy became the first and only G7 nation to join China's ambitious infrastructure building effort, despite objections from the United States.
The project was launched by Beijing in 2013 by President Xi Jinping to link East Asia and Europe through physical infrastructure. The ambition for the project has expanded to Africa, Oceania and Latin America, significantly broadening China's economic and political influence. Italy must either renew or abandon the accord by early next year.
Kirby called Italy's decision on whether to stay in Belt and Road a "sovereign decision" but added that "it's becoming increasingly obvious that more and more countries around the world are seeing the risks, and quite frankly lack of reward for economic partnerships with China."
Meloni is also scheduled to meet with Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Thursday at the U.S. Capitol.