ROME – After six weeks of diplomatic unrest over a failed submarine deal and accusations of American hypocrisy, President Biden on Friday made individual efforts to repair fences with French President Emmanuel Macron, admitting the matter could have been better handled.
“What we did was awkward,” Mr. Biden told reporters hours after arriving in Italy to attend the summit with other world leaders. “It was not done with much grace.”
In a personal statement mea culpa to the leader of one of America’s oldest allies, Mr Biden indicated that he was prepared to move out of the embarrassing dispute arising from a secret US agreement with Britain and Australia on supplying Australia with a nuclear-powered nuclear submarine, thus effectively annulled the lucrative and strategically important French treaty.
“I had the impression that France had been informed long before that the deal would fail,” Mr Biden said, and in fact invited his negotiating partners to take some of the blame after weeks of breaking through French anger. Later that day, the two issued a joint statement reaffirming Biden’s support for America’s European allies in developing a “stronger and more capable European defense” as a compliment to NATO.
The meeting highlighted the diplomatic challenges that Mr Biden faces abroad as he prepares for the Group of 20 meeting this weekend, where he will try to ensure global agreement setting a minimum level of corporate taxation, which aims to prevent companies from filling revenues into tax havens. It will also encourage other countries to help address supply chain bottlenecks, announce a global working group to combat coronavirus, and encourage investment to curb global warming.
But his journey began with a private audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican, a diplomatic meeting in which he liked the president, who smiled broadly as he stepped out of the presidential limousine.
After about 90 minutes with Francis at the Vatican Apostolic Palace, Mr Biden told reporters that the pope described him as a “good Catholic” who continue to receive Holy Communion.
A clear show of support would mean, for the first time, that the Pope had explicitly opposed the campaign of conservative bishops in the United States to make Mr. Bidna, a fellow Roman Catholic, was denied the sacrament for his support of abortion rights. Asked if they had discussed abortion, the president replied no, but that the topic of receiving the sacrament had emerged.
“We just talked about him being glad I was a good Catholic,” Mr Biden told reporters, “and he should continue to receive communion.”
Asked to confirm Mr Biden’s version of the exchange, Vatican spokesman Matt Bruni said the Holy See had limited its comments to a press release on the topics discussed during the meeting, adding: “This is a private conversation.”
One drama-free meeting took place later in the day when Mr Biden tried 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 that he saw a strong European Union – including one with a unified military defense – as the interest of the United States, says a person familiar with the conversation. Biden also said at a meeting at Chigi Palace, the seat of the Italian government, that Italy and the US need to show that democracies can work successfully, and that Mr Draghi is doing that.
The White House did not return a request to verify these private comments.
On a day that emphasized the importance of lasting relationships, a 75-minute one-on-one meeting at the Pope’s private library, followed by 15 minutes of beauty with family and officials, seemed to give Mr Biden the greatest personal and political upswing.
The Vatican did not allow public access to the meeting because it invoked concerns about the coronavirus and released only heavily edited footage. The statement said Francis and Mr Biden focused in a private part of the meeting on “a shared commitment to protecting and caring for the planet, the state of health and the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as refugees and migrants.” that the talks touched on human rights and freedom of religion.
Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit priest in Rome and Francis ‘confidant, said that while Mr Biden’s version of his exchange with the pope for communion was accurate, it was “not a political statement”, as Francis’ overall goal was to avoid politicizing the Eucharist and the church. which he considers disastrous. Instead, Father Spadaro said, the pope as pastor would speak to a member of his flock. “It’s pastoral for a person,” he said.
But politically, that distinction would change little for Mr. Biden, who has been the target of conservative American bishops, many apparently backing former President Donald Trump. They argued that a Catholic politician, and especially a president who supports abortion rights, should not receive communion.
The Vatican warned American bishops not to carry out such a campaign, but they continued nonetheless.
Since becoming president, Mr Biden has been reluctant to explain in detail how he reconciles his Catholic beliefs with the conflicting view that abortion rights should be respected as law. But now he can point to the highest authority in his church when she is challenged for his faith.
“Basically, you have to take over not only Biden, but the Pope as well,” John Carr, co-director of the Initiative for Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, said of American Conservative bishops advocating that Mr. denied the right to receive the sacrament.
Mr. Biden met with three popes during his public tenure, but Francis made the greatest impression. The pope met privately with the Biden family during his 2015 trip to the United States, which took place about five months after the death of Biden’s son Beau. The then vice president and his family were still deeply grieving and that audience “provided us with more consolation than I think even he will understand,” Mr Biden said at the time.
Mr. Biden arrived in Rome at a time when political polarization in America was weaving into its Catholic Church. And the president and the pope became common targets powerful conservative American bishops who want to undermine them.
Massimo Faggioli, a 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 angry at the Pope’s encouragement, and wondered if the president had confirmed his decision . talk about it publicly with the Vatican.
The heavily edited footage released by the Vatican seems to highlight the warm bond shared by the leaders. Biden took the pope by the hand and described him as “the most important peace fighter I have ever met.”
After a private conversation, they exchanged gifts, and Mr. Biden presented the pope with a presidential challenge coin featuring Delaware, his home country, and a Beau Army National Guard unit. “I know my son would want me to give it to you,” he said.
When Francis showed Mr. Biden and Jill Biden, the first lady, to the door, Mr. Biden was in no hurry to leave.
He unwrapped the folk yarn, which referred to the fact that he and the Pope ascended to their positions later in life. As a hint of their age – he is 78 and Francis is 84 – he presented the story of Satchel Paige, a legendary black player who spent most of his career in the black leagues and was only allowed to join the major leagues in his 40s.
“Usually metalheads lose their hands when they’re 35 years old,” Mr Biden told the pope, who found him somewhat lost in terms of baseball. “He won on his 47th birthday.”
As Mr. Biden explained, reporters asked the actor, “Satch, at 47, no one has achieved victory yet. How do you feel about winning on your birthday?” not how I look at age. I look at it this way: How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are? ”
The Pope looked at Mr. Biden.
“You’re 65, I’m 60,” the president said. “God loves you.”
Jim Tankersley contributed reporting from Rome and Ruth Graham from Dallas.