The red carpet is being rolled out by the White House Tuesday to welcome Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who is joining President Barack Obama for the last state dinner hosted by the commander-in-chief.
Many details of the high-profile state dinner remain under wraps, but what is clear is the importance of the U.S./Italian relationship to both political leaders. Here, the key things to know about Renzi’s visit to the White House
1. The Italian Prime Minister is facing a crucial referendum
Renzi is meeting with Obama less than two months before a critical referendum that is set to decide his fate as leader, similarly to how former British Prime Minister David Cameron met with the U.S. president ahead of the EU referendum in June.
Italians are voting Dec. 4 on Renzi’s proposal to amend the Italian constitution and dilute the power and size of the Italian Senate. If Renzi does not secure a victory for his constitutional changes, he has announced that he will resign – although in recent weeks he has declined to repeat this pledge.
If he did resign, it could have wider implications for the European Union, reports Euro News, “because it would open the door to the possibility of the Euroskeptic Five Star Movement getting into power, who have made no secret of wanting to hold a referendum on Italy leaving the Euro”.
Although many have cited the proposed reforms as a positive change for the country, including the U.S. ambassador in Rome, recent opinion polls suggest that Renzi will not be successful. Even though Obama will not speak his opinions of the referendum openly, his support will be understood and this dinner could help Renzi’s chances. That said, it’s worth remembering that Obama’s intercession into the ‘Brexit’ campaign did not give Cameron the victory he wanted.
2. Renzi and Obama have a close relationship
Renzi has been described as the Justin Trudeau of Italy, and shares a similar bond with the President to the Canadian Prime Minister.
Renzi has been one of Europe’s most vocal supporters of the free trade deals championed by Obama, who called Renzi “a leading voice in Europe,” after a White House meeting with the Italian politician last year. “I have been very impressed with the energy and the vision and the reforms that he is pursuing to unleash the potential of the Italian people and the Italian economy,” he said, the Washington Post reported at the time.
The Italian Prime Minister has used Obama’s former campaign manager Jim Messina, in his referendum fight, and he was the first European leader to back Hillary Clinton for the White House.
Renzi’s rise also has parallels to that of Obama. In a TIME article called Has Italy’s Left Found its Own Obama?, published in February 2009, the magazine compared the two leaders and revealed that “in [Renzi’s] primary, he ran a classic grass-roots campaign using the Internet, Facebook and other tactics drawn from Obama’s successful presidential run.”
3. The bonds between Italy and the U.S. are strengthening
Although German Chancellor Angela Merkel remains arguably Obama’s closest ally in Europe, the relationship between Italy and the U.S. continues to strengthen, particularly when it comes to Libya and anti-ISIS efforts.
Renzi has allowed the U.S. military to use Italian bases for strikes in Libya, and only last week Rome announced it was joining a new NATO force in eastern Europe that has angered Russia and is viewed with suspicion on Italy’s left, reports Reuters.
“Italy is a key member of our counter-ISIL coalition,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest to journalists Monday, Politico reports. “Earnest said Italy has an ‘important role in trying to help their European partners confront the migration crisis,’ and he also mentioned the country’s “special relationship” with Libya and efforts in Syria,” the report continued.
4. All the stops are being pulled out at the state dinner
The White House is putting on quite a feast for the Italian leader. The food is being prepared by American chef Mario Batali, who is known for his Italian-inspired cuisine. Although the menu has not been revealed, officials told the New York Times that the 500 guests could expect “traditional Italian dishes that have been ingrained in American cuisine”. Entertainment will be provided by the singer Gwen Stefani (whose father is Italian-American) and the Guardian described the event as a “keenly anticipated… glamorous affair.”