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Elon Musk and Italy’s Giorgia Meloni Form a Trans-Atlantic Bond

Author: Eric Sylvers, and Margherita Stancati Source: WSJ:
December 29, 2023 at 08:39

From immigration to AI, the billionaire and the Italian prime minister are finding common ground.
 Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni hosted Elon Musk at her official residence in Rome in June. PHOTO: CHIGI PALACE PRESS OFFICE/SHUTTERSTOCK
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni hosted Elon Musk at her official residence in Rome in June. 
PHOTO: CHIGI PALACE PRESS OFFICE/SHUTTERSTOCK


ROME—Elon Musk and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni have formed one of 2023’s more unlikely trans-Atlantic alliances.

Behind their budding friendship lie common interests in political issues such as immigration and demographics, as well as in tech-sector regulation and the risks associated with artificial intelligence.

Musk, the 52-year-old billionaire behind Tesla, SpaceX and X, has visited Italy several times this year and was the star guest at a political festival in Rome hosted by Meloni’s right-wing Brothers of Italy party this month.

In June, Meloni hosted Musk at her official residence in Rome where the pair talked about AI, and displayed their chemistry as they laughed and hugged. Most visitors get a handshake.

Musk has said he spoke with Meloni, 46, earlier this year when he was looking for an ancient Roman venue where he and Mark Zuckerberg could hold a cage fight. In October, Musk liked a post by the Italian leader on X where she announced the end of her 10-year relationship with her daughter’s father.

“For Meloni, Musk is a great visionary, so it’s easy to see what she gets out of the relationship: access to what for her is a new and captivating world,” said Stefano Quintarelli, a former Italian lawmaker turned technology entrepreneur and venture-capital investor. “What’s less clear is what he gets out of this.”

Some in Europe believe Musk is seeking political allies in the region as the European Union seeks to regulate AI. Musk is also facing scrutiny in the EU over his ownership of X. The platform is facing an EU probe over its handling of illegal content and disinformation. If found to have breached the EU’s online-content rules, X risks a heavy fine at a time when revenue has been hit by the withdrawal of some advertisers unhappy with some of Musk’s posts.

Musk and Meloni didn’t respond to requests for comment. 

Meloni, who won power in Italian elections in 2022, made her name as a right-wing firebrand in Italy’s culture wars over immigration and traditional family values. For years, her signature policy promise has been to stop illegal immigration across the Mediterranean Sea from Africa to Italy—although she has struggled to prevent an increase in migrant arrivals since taking office. 

This fall, when Meloni slammed Germany for funding nongovernmental organizations that rescue migrants in the Mediterranean, Musk weighed in on X. “Surely it is a violation of the sovereignty of Italy for Germany to transport vast numbers of illegal immigrants to Italian soil,” he posted, adding: “Has invasion vibes…”

The two have also found common ground in boosting birthrates, and in fighting against what he has dubbed the “woke mind virus.” Both themes featured prominently at the political festival in Rome this month. 

“Every year I look at the birthrates and it’s kind of depressing,” Musk said at the Rome event, which he attended with one of his sons. “One can’t depend on other countries for immigration. Italy is the people of Italy.”  

The entrepreneur said he would worry about investing in a country with Italy’s low birthrate. “Will there be enough people to work there?” Musk said at the event. “Please make more Italians, is what I’m saying.” 
 

Behind the pair’s budding friendship lie common interests in political issues such as immigration and demographics. PHOTO: CHIGI PALACE PRESS OFFICE /ZUMA PRESS
Behind the pair’s budding friendship lie common interests in political issues such as immigration and demographics.
PHOTO: CHIGI PALACE PRESS OFFICE /ZUMA PRESS


The staunchly conservative Meloni has long called for Italian society to return to having more children, arguing that a progressive “dominant culture” has denigrated parenthood. 

Musk’s appearance was also a coup for Meloni’s quest to boost her tech credentials. Italy is slated to preside over meetings of the Group of Seven major advanced economies in 2024, and Meloni wants to make regulating AI one of her central themes for G-7 discussions. She has said AI could be “the greatest challenge of our era.” 

Musk has launched an AI company while calling the technology one of the biggest threats to humanity. Musk’s star power in all things technology, and his willingness to pontificate freely on the benefits and potential pitfalls of AI, could boost Meloni’s effort to put the technology on the international political agenda.

Meloni is Italy’s first female leader and the first prime minister from its antiestablishment far right. Her political roots lie in a post-fascist party called the Italian Social Movement, founded after World War II by former members of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party. The group spent decades on the fringes of Italian politics but eventually sought to become a democratic right-wing movement. 

Meloni has distanced herself from her far-right past, embracing mainstream conservative policies on economics and foreign affairs, including support for Italy’s membership of the euro, its security alliance with the U.S., and for Ukraine’s defense against Russia’s invasion.

She continues to appeal to her far-right base on Italy’s culture wars, with tough stances against illegal immigration and same-sex parenting. She has railed against surrogacy, saying “children are not to be bought and sold.” Her government wants to make surrogacy a so-called universal crime, meaning that Italians who use a surrogate mother could face criminal charges even if they do so abroad. The category is typically reserved for the most heinous crimes, such as slavery, genocide and pedophilia.
 

 Some in Europe believe Musk is seeking political allies in the region. PHOTO: FRANCESCO FOTIA/ZUMA PRESS
Some in Europe believe Musk is seeking political allies in the region. PHOTO: FRANCESCO FOTIA/ZUMA PRESS


Surrogacy is one issue where she and Musk disagree. Musk supports the surrogacy process and has had at least one child through surrogacy. “We have too few humans being born as it is,” he has said.

In July, an Italian opposition lawmaker, Alessandro Zan, shouted in Parliament that Meloni should look Musk in the eye and tell him he is a criminal. Meloni didn’t respond.

Meloni’s government is also looking to get carmakers to build vehicles and batteries in Italy to help offset the country’s manufacturing decline. Italy’s long-dominant carmaker Fiat is now a fading force in its economy as its owner, Stellantis, moves production elsewhere. So far Musk hasn’t indicated that he might consider Italy for a Tesla factory. 

Musk has taken several high-profile jaunts to Europe this year, meeting with the leaders of the U.K. and France in addition to Meloni. Frequent European trips of this nature are a change for the billionaire, who in recent years has spent most of his time in Texas and California.

After his appearance on stage at Meloni’s event, he left for a whirlwind private tour of Rome with Italy’s cultural minister, posting on X a clip of Caravaggio paintings, and another from the roof of the Pantheon.
 

Tim Higgins contributed to this article.

Write to Eric Sylvers at eric.sylvers@wsj.com and Margherita Stancati at margherita.stancati@wsj.com

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