Meloni and Sunak: Do the UK and Italy still have a ‘special relationship’?

Clare Speak
Clare Speak - [email protected]
Meloni and Sunak: Do the UK and Italy still have a ‘special relationship’?
Meloni and Sunak were pictured laughing and joking as they met for the G7 meeting in Puglia, southern Italy, on Thursday. (Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP)

After Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni gave her British counterpart Rishi Sunak an awkward welcome at the G7 summit, is their famous friendship starting to cool?


The British and Italian prime ministers get on famously well - and they never miss an opportunity to show it.

Photos and video footage of the pair meeting for the G7 summit went viral on Thursday, sparking countless jokes and memes. But while the UK's tabloid media described their greeting as “overly friendly", other reports speculated that the "awkward" greeting was in fact a snub by Meloni.

Meloni appeared to dodge Sunak, before joking with him under the shade of an olive tree at the summit in southern Italy's Puglia region. They were then pictured beaming before clasping hands again.

In contrast, Meloni quickly turned away from French president Emmanuel Macron after he greeted her, and she formally shook hands with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, without exchanging smiles.

Meloni and Sunak laughing as they greeted each other warmly at the G7 meeting on Thursday. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP)

The far-right Italian premier and the British Conservative prime minister are regularly pictured laughing and joking together at meetings, apparently becoming firm friends shortly  after taking office within three days of each other in late 2022.

Their close relationship was noted by media in both countries in December 2023, when Sunak attended the Atreju political festival in Rome organised by Meloni’s hardline Brothers of Italy party.

The visit was seen as a return favour - Meloni had been the only other G7 leader to attend a UK summit on artificial intelligence the month before.

The UK's Guardian newspaper at the time described their rapport as a “love-burst”, while Italian media reported on the pair's "special relationship", after footage from the Atreju festival showed them embracing warmly.

Rishi Sunak jokes with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni during the Atreju political festival in Rome in December 2023. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

Sunak’s spokesperson told journalists in December that they “obviously get on” and put their close relationship down to the fact they were elected at “at similar time.”

Reports have also speculated that their personal friendship is due to the fact that they are similar ages, both have young daughters, and they are also both 'firsts' - Meloni is Italy’s first woman premier while Sunak is the UK’s first British Asian prime minister.


This is despite their differing backgrounds: one started out as a teenage post-fascist activist on the streets of Rome, rising to become Italy’s first female premier. The other is a former investment banker who became Britain’s wealthiest prime minister.

READ ALSO: Giorgia Meloni and Rishi Sunak announce joint battle against migration

Since taking power however, the two have been closely aligned politically. Their widely-criticised immigration policies in particular have notable similarities, from Sunak's plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, to Meloni's moves to limit rescues by charity ships in the Mediterranean.

A series of meetings between the two last year appeared to strengthen relations between Italy and the UK more broadly.

In April 2023, the pair signed a memorandum of understanding which Meloni hailed as a "new beginning" in relations between the two countries. The wide-ranging text covered migration, climate, police and judicial cooperation, innovation, international security and the defence sector.

“We have the same values ​​and we can work well together,” Sunak told reporters at the time.

Rishi Sunak and Giorgia Meloni share a joke during a NATO summit in Vilnius on July 11th, 2023. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / POOL / AFP)

He compared Meloni to former British premier Margaret Thatcher - and said they needed some of the Iron Lady's "radicalism" to tackle mass migration.


But their meeting at the G7 is expected to be their last while Sunak is prime minister, as his government is expected to be voted out at the July general election.

While Meloni enjoys steadily rising popularity among voters in Italy, Sunak recorded his highest disapproval rating yet this week among UK voters.

It’s hard to imagine Labour leader Keir Starmer, Sunak’s expected centre-left successor, fitting in at the next edition of Meloni’s Atreju festival  - which has previously featured the likes of former Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.

The relationship between Italy and the UK will no doubt remain strategically very important to both governments, whoever's in charge. But without Meloni and Sunak’s special bond, it won't be quite the same.



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