Cheesy: Pompeo and the protest wedge of Parmesan-Reggiano

When is a gift presented to a diplomat not really a gift? When it is presented in a gesture of protest, not as a gracious welcome.

America’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in Rome. As he and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte went through the motions of a standard photo opportunity, shaking hands and smiling for the cameras from the press, a woman approached the two men. The woman held a large wedge of Parmesan-Reggiano in her hands. She extended the cheese to Pompeo, who smiled at her and accepted it. The prime minister, however, scowled.

“I have a present for you — an Italian present. The prime minister knows what I am talking about. This is Parmigiano-Reggiano, and this is what we make best in Italy,” video footage of the event shows Alice Martinelli saying, as Pompeo beams and graciously accepts the pound and a half of authentic Italian cheese.

But Conte appears entirely unamused. “May I ask the lady to step aside, please?” he said.

“I’d be grateful if you could also help,” she appears to say back to him.

“Don’t you worry, I’m doing my job,” Conte replies.

“Take it to Mr. Trump, please, and tell [him] that we make it with our hearts, please,” she calls out to Pompeo, as security agents intervene to escort her offstage.

The cheese was used as a symbol of the possible tariffs President Trump and his administration may levy on European food products. Tariffs on Italian cheese and wine that may be coming down the road are, naturally, a concern for Italians who will feel the pinch. Martinelli was speaking up for the country’s dairies, apparently. There are 330 Italian dairies.

Martinelli, it should be noted, is a journalist with Italy’s satirical “Le Iene” show. Satire. The show began in 1997 and it is a comedy/satirical show. The show uses sketches and reports to comment on political affairs and consumer issues. Should she be taken seriously over an economic issue? Probably not any more seriously than anyone takes Stephen Colbert in America.

Her bid for international attention didn’t sit well with Prime Minister Conte. As soon as she approached him and Pompeo, his smile turned to a scowl. As soon as Pompeo took the cheese from her, Conte had her escorted away by the security detail. When she instructed Pompeo to deliver the cheese to President Trump and told Conte to do his job, Conte snapped back, “Don’t you worry, I’m doing my job.” He took the cheese from Pompeo and gave it to an aide.

He grabbed the 30-month-old cheese from Pompeo and handed it off to an aide. “Let me explain, this is the way to prove you’re Italian,” he said, as Pompeo giggled in the background. “Let me do the work of the president of the council. … You, step outside,” he called after Martinelli in Italian.

Protesters met Pompeo as he arrived to meet with Conte.

As Pompeo drove up to the presidential palace, he was greeted by members of Italy’s largest agricultural union Coldiretti who held up banners saying “Don’t kill Italian food” and “Mr Pompeo, we are friends”.

They brandished bottles of olive oil, Parma ham and other Italian specialities under a banner reading “A present for Trump”.

Italian Agriculture Minister Teresa Bellanova noted, “The Americans import $4.5 billion worth of Italian food products, or 10 percent of our total exports.”

She told La Stampa newspaper that a hike in tariffs would “seriously endanger jobs, companies and families” across the country, adding that Parmesan and olive oil exports brought in more than $1 billion.

The U.S. is one of the world’s biggest importers of olive oil. The same is true for prosecco and other wines. If tariffs are levied, Italian cheesemakers think that consumption will fall off in America by 80%-90%. That sounds like an exaggeration to me. Tariffs of up to 100 percent on the value of food products exported to the US are discussed. The tariffs are in reaction to subsidies received by aircraft maker Airbus.

EDIT: The name Conte was incorrectly referenced in the fourth paragraph and was corrected to Martinelli.