Trump says 'strong Europe' is important for US

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni during a joint press conference at the White House in Washington, DC, April 20, 2017

US President Donald Trump, who once celebrated Britain's decision to leave the European Union, insisted Thursday that he wants the bloc to remain strong.

"Yes, a strong Europe is very, very important to me as president of the united states," Trump told reporters at a joint news conference with Italy's Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni.

"And it is also in my opinion -- in my very strong opinion -- important for the United States. We want to see it. We will help it be strong."

Trump's past comments predicting that other countries "will leave" the EU after Britain voted to do so last year rankled European leaders.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even responded with a joke he was ready to encourage US independence movements if Trump failed to tone down his Brexit support.

But more recently, Trump has endorsed the European bloc, which describes itself as a bastion against the nationalistic rivalries that so often tore it apart in wars in past centuries.

Early this month, the US president told the Financial Times newspaper he thought the European Union was "getting their act together" -- though he maintained Brexit would be "really, really good" for the Union and for Britain.

The turnabout mirrored Trump's changing opinion of NATO.

Initially, he portrayed the military alliance as "obsolete."

But last week he declared that was no longer the case. Now, he said, he was satisfied it was the "bulwark of international peace and security."

However Trump is still insisting most NATO members "owe" money to the alliance, stressing a goal that they all spend two percent of economic output on military expenditure.

In his media conference with the Italian prime minister, Trump focused again on that financial issue.

Gentiloni said his country fully intended to meet that commitment, despite budget limitations.

"We know that this will be a gradual process. It has already begun," he said.