ROME — After six weeks of diplomatic turmoil over a sunk submarine deal and allegations of American duplicity, President Biden Friday made a one-on-one attempt to mend the fences with President Emmanuel Macron of France by admitting that, yes, the case could have been handled better.
“What we did was inconvenient,” Biden told reporters hours after arriving in Italy to attend a summit with other world leaders. “It’s not done with much grace.”
By delivering a personal mea culpa to the leader of one of America’s oldest allies, Mr. Biden signaled that he was ready to move forward after an embarrassing row spawned over a secret US agreement with Britain and Australia over Australia. to provide nuclear weapons. powered attack submarines, effectively nullifying a lucrative and strategically important French contract.
“I had the impression that France had been informed long before that the deal would not go through,” Biden said, effectively inviting his negotiating partners to take some of the blame after enduring weeks of French anger. Later in the day, the two released a joint statement confirming Mr Biden’s support for America’s European allies to develop a “stronger and more capable European defense force” to complement NATO.
The meeting underlined the diplomatic challenges Mr Biden faces abroad as he prepares for this weekend’s Group of 20 meeting, where he will seek to negotiate a global agreement to set minimum levels of corporate tax, with the aim of prevent companies from putting revenue into tax havens . He will also urge other countries to help uncork supply chain bottlenecks, announce a global task force to fight the coronavirus and push for investment to curb global warming.
But his journey began with a personal audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican, a diplomatic meeting that the president, who grinned widely as he emerged from his presidential limousine, seemed to enjoy.
After spending about 90 minutes with Francis in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, Mr Biden told reporters that the Pope had called him a “good Catholic” who should continue to receive Holy Communion.
The apparent endorsement would be the first time the Pope has explicitly opposed a campaign by conservative bishops in the United States to deny Mr Biden, a fellow Roman Catholic, the sacrament for his support for abortion rights. When asked if the two had discussed abortion, the president replied no, but the subject of receiving the sacrament had been brought up.
“We were just talking about how happy he was that I was a good Catholic,” Biden told reporters, “and I should continue to receive Communion.”
Asked to confirm Biden’s version of the exchange, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said the Holy See limited its comments to the press release on topics discussed at the meeting, adding, “It’s a private conversation.”
A drama-free meeting came later in the day as Mr Biden sought to strengthen relations with Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi. Draghi is growing in importance as a European leader who believes that greater European military independence can go hand in hand with a solid commitment to NATO and a lasting alliance with the United States.
Mr. Biden told Mr. Draghi that he saw a strong European Union — even one with a unified military defense — in the interest of the United States, according to a person familiar with the conversation. During their meeting at the Chigi Palace, the seat of the Italian government, Mr. Biden also said that Italy and the United States had to show that democracies can function successfully, and that Mr. Draghi did.
The White House did not return a request to verify those private comments.
In a day that highlighted the importance of lasting relationships, the 75-minute one-on-one meeting in the Pope’s private library, followed by 15-minute pleasantries with family and officials, seemed to be the greatest personal and political lift for Mr. Biden.
The Vatican did not allow the public access to the meeting, citing concerns about the coronavirus, and released only heavily edited footage. It said in a statement that in the private portion of the meeting, Francis and Mr. Biden had focused “on the shared commitment to protecting and caring for the planet, the health situation and the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the theme of refugees and aid to migrants.” It added that the talks covered human rights and freedom of religion.
Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit priest in Rome and a close confidant of Francis, said that if Mr. Biden’s version of his conversation with the Pope about Communion was correct, it was “not a political statement,” since Francis’ whole purpose is to avoid the politicization was. of the Eucharist and the Church, which he considers disastrous. Instead, Father Spadaro said, the Pope would have spoken to a member of his flock as a pastor. “This is pastoral to the person,” he said.
But politically, that distinction would make little difference to Mr. Biden, who has been targeted by conservative US bishops, many of whom apparently support former President Donald Trump. They have argued that a Catholic politician, and especially a president, who was in favor of abortion rights, should not receive Communion.
The Vatican had warned the American bishops not to continue such a campaign, but they persevered anyway.
Since becoming president, Mr. Biden has refused to explain at length how he reconciles his Catholic faith with a conflicting view that abortion rights should be enforced as law. But he can now point to the highest authority in his church when challenged on his faith.
“You’re essentially going up against not only Biden, but the Pope,” John Carr, co-director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, said of US conservative bishops campaigning for Biden’s right. to receive the sacrament.
Biden has met three popes during his tenure, but Francis has impressed the most. The Pope met the Bidens privately during his 2015 trip to the United States, about five months after the death of Mr Biden’s son, Beau. The then vice president and his family were still deeply mourned, and that audience “gave us more comfort than even he, I think, will understand,” Biden said at the time.
Mr Biden arrived in Rome at a time when political polarization in America has become intertwined with his Catholic Church. And the president and pope have become common targets of powerful conservative American bishops seeking to undermine them.
Massimo Faggioli, a theology professor 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 Pope’s encouragement, and wondered if the president had approved his decision to discuss it publicly with the Vatican.
The heavily edited images released by the Vatican seemed to underline the warm bond between the two leaders. Mr Biden grabbed the Pope’s hand and called him “the greatest fighter for peace I have ever met.”
After their private conversation, they exchanged gifts, and Mr. Biden gave the Pope a presidential challenge coin featuring 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.
When Francis pointed Mr. Biden and Jill Biden, the first lady, to the door, Mr. Biden was in no rush to leave.
He rinsed a folky yarn that referred to both he and the Pope taking their positions later in life. In a nod to their ages – he’s 78 and Francis is 84 – he told a story about Satchel Paige, the legendary black player who pitched most of his career in the Negro Leagues and who was only in his 40s.
“Usually pitchers lose their arms when they’re 35,” Mr. Biden told the Pope, who seemed a little lost by the baseball reference. “He pitched a win on his 47th birthday.”
As Mr Biden explained, reporters asked the pitcher, “Satch, no one has ever thrown a win at age 47. What do you think about winning on your birthday?” and the pitcher replied: not how I look at age. I look at it like this: how old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?’”
The Pope looked at Mr Biden.
“You’re 65, I’m 60,” the president said. “God loves you.”
Jim Tankersley contributed from Rome and Ruth Graham from Dallas.