ROME — U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak likened Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni to Margaret Thatcher as he called on European leaders to channel the old Conservative British leader’s “radicalism” and challenge decades-old rules around refugees.
“Thatcher understood that ideas are only important if they can be implemented,” Sunak said in a speech at the governing Brothers of Italy party’s right-wing Atreju festival in Rome. “She never backed down even when the fight was hard, and today we have to apply Thatcher’s radicalism to illegal immigration.”
Both leaders have put migration front and center since they took office in November 2022. Last month, Meloni brokered a deal to process asylum applications in neighboring Albania; and earlier this week the U.K. won parliamentary acceptance for its contentious plan to deport certain migrants to Rwanda.
“If we do not tackle this problem, the numbers will only grow,” Sunak said in a short speech on Saturday. “It will overwhelm our countries and our capacity to help those who actually need our help the most. If that requires us to update our laws and lead an international conversation to amend the post-war frameworks around asylum, then we must do that.”
Behind the scenes, Sunak and Meloni also agreed on the need to deepen cooperation in order to “tackle illegal immigration to Europe in an increasingly structured manner” and also work together on repatriating migrants, according to a statement from Downing Street circulated at the same time as Sunak’s speech.
Meloni will benefit politically from Sunak’s patronage of the Atreju festival, an annual event founded in 1998 by the precursor of the far-right Brothers of Italy party which has since become a mainstream political conference under the leadership of Meloni.
The two leaders have become politically close, with Sunak hailing his “strong friendship” with the Italian leader, noting that she was elected at roughly the same time as him and is one of the only other “center-right” leaders in Europe. He even embraced his Italian counterpart as he headed offstage.