Biden eases fray with France, relishes meeting with Pope as journey to Europe begins

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ROME – After a six-week diplomatic uproar over a scuttled submarine deal and accusations of American duplicity, President Biden made an individual effort on Friday to mend barriers with French President Emmanuel Macron admitting that , yes, the case could have been handled better.

“What we did was awkward,” Biden told reporters hours after arriving in Italy to attend a summit with other world leaders. “It was not done very gracefully. “

By delivering a mea culpa in person to the leader of one of America’s oldest allies, Biden signaled he was ready to move on from an embarrassing feud that arose out of a secret U.S. deal with the United States. Great Britain and Australia to supply Australia with nuclear power. motorized attack submarines, effectively canceling a lucrative and strategically important French contract.

“I was under the impression that France had been informed long before the deal would come to fruition,” Biden said, effectively urging his negotiating partners to shoulder some of the blame after weeks of French anger. Later that day, the two issued a joint statement confirming Mr. Biden’s support for US European allies to develop a “stronger and more capable European defense” as a compliment to NATO.

The meeting highlighted the diplomatic challenges Mr Biden faces abroad as he prepares for the Group of 20 meeting this weekend, where he will seek to reach a global agreement to set minimum levels of corporate taxation, aimed at preventing companies from paying income into tax havens. . It will also inspire other countries to help unblock supply chain bottlenecks, announce a global task force to tackle the coronavirus and urge investments to curb global warming.

But his journey began with a private audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican, a diplomatic meeting that the president, who smiled broadly as he stepped out of his presidential limousine, seemed to enjoy.

After spending around 90 minutes with Francis at the Vatican Apostolic Palace, Biden told reporters that the Pope called him a “good Catholic” who should continue to receive Holy Communion.

The apparent show of support would mark the first time the Pope has explicitly opposed a campaign by conservative bishops in the United States to deny Mr. Biden, another Roman Catholic, the sacrament because of his support for the right to abortion. When asked if the two had talked about abortion, the president replied no, but that the subject of receiving the sacrament had been raised.

“We just talked about how happy he was that I was a good Catholic,” Mr. Biden told reporters, “and I should continue to receive Communion.”

Asked to confirm Mr Biden’s version of the exchange, Matteo Bruni, the Vatican spokesperson, said the Holy See limited its comments to the press release on the topics discussed at the meeting and added : “It’s a private conversation”.

A drama-free meeting took place later in the day, when Mr Biden sought to strengthen relations with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi. Mr Draghi is becoming increasingly important as a European leader who believes that greater European military independence can coexist with a strong commitment to NATO and a lasting alliance with the United States.

Mr Biden told Mr Draghi he viewed a strong European Union – even with a unified military defense – in the best interests of the United States, according to a person familiar with the conversation. During their meeting at Chigi Palace, the seat of the Italian government, Mr Biden also said that Italy and the United States must show that democracies can work successfully, and that Mr Draghi does.

The White House did not return a request to verify these private remarks.

On a day that underscored the importance of lasting relationships, the 75-minute one-on-one meeting in the Pope’s private library, followed by 15 minutes of courtesies with family and officials, appeared to give Mr. Biden the biggest personal and political event lift.

The Vatican did not allow public access to the meeting, citing coronavirus concerns, and only released heavily edited footage. He said in a statement that, in the private part of the meeting, Francis and Mr. Biden had focused “on the common commitment to the protection and care of the planet, the health situation and the fight against the pandemic. of Covid-19, as well as the topic of refugees and assistance to migrants. ”He added that the talks had focused on human rights and freedom of religion.

Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit priest in Rome and confidant of Francis, said that while Mr. Biden’s version of his exchange with the Pope about communion was correct, it was nonetheless “not a political statement” because the Francis’ goal was to avoid politicization. of the Eucharist and of the Church, which he considers disastrous. Instead, Father Spadaro said, the Pope reportedly spoke as a pastor to a member of his flock. “It is pastoral for the person,” he said.

But, politically speaking, that distinction would make little difference to Mr Biden, who has been the target of conservative American bishops, many of whom apparently support former President Donald Trump. They argued that a Catholic politician, and in particular a president, who supported the right to abortion should not receive Communion.

The Vatican had warned the American bishops not to pursue such a campaign, but they moved forward anyway.

Since becoming president, Mr Biden has refused to explain in detail how he reconciles his Catholic beliefs with a conflicting view that abortion rights should be recognized as law. But he can now designate the highest authority in his church when challenged on his faith.

“You basically have to face not only Biden but the Pope as well,” said John Carr, co-director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, of the conservative American bishops who campaigned. for that Mr. Biden entitled to receive the denied sacrament.

Mr. Biden met three popes during his public office, but Francis made the biggest impression. The Pope met privately with the Bidens during his 2015 trip to the United States, which took place about five months after the death of Mr Biden’s son Beau. The then vice president and his family were still deeply in mourning, and this audience “has brought us more comfort than even he, I think, will understand,” Mr Biden said at the time.

Mr. Biden arrived in Rome at a time when political polarization in America was woven into his Catholic church. And the president and the pope have become common targets of powerful American conservative bishops seeking to undermine them.

Massimo Faggioli, professor of theology at Villanova University and author of “Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States,” said there was “no doubt” that American bishops would be angered by the encouragement of the United States. pope, and wondered if the president had authorized his decision. talk about it publicly with the Vatican.

The heavily edited images released by the Vatican seemed to underscore the warm bond shared by the two leaders. Mr. Biden shook hands with the Pope and called him “the most important peace warrior I have ever met”.

After their private interview, they exchanged gifts, and Mr. Biden presented the Pope with a presidential challenge coin that represented Delaware, his home state, and Beau’s Army National Guard unit. “I know my son would want me to give this to you,” he said.

As Francis showed Mr Biden and Jill Biden, the first lady, the door, Mr Biden was in no rush to leave.

He unrolled a folk thread that referred to him and the pope rising to their posts later in life. In a nod to their age – he is 78 and Francis is 84 – he told a story about Satchel Paige, the legendary black player who launched most of his career in the Black Leagues and who did was only allowed to join the major leagues in his 40s.

“Usually pitchers lose their arms at 35,” Biden told the Pope, who seemed a bit lost by the reference to baseball. “He threw a victory on his 47th birthday. “

As Mr Biden explained, reporters asked the pitcher, “‘Satch, no one has ever thrown a win at 47. How do you feel about throwing a win on your birthday?'” And the pitcher replied, “” Boys, that’s not how I look at age. I see it this way: How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were? ‘ “

The Pope looked at Mr. Biden.

“You are 65, I am 60,” said the president. “God loves you.”

Jim Tankersley contributed reporting from Rome and Ruth Graham from Dallas.


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