No day at the beach: G7 adapts summit to the age of 'America First'

Regis Duvignau, Reuters | Ahead of the G7 Summit, G7 souvenir magnets are displayed for sale in a shop in Biarritz, France, on August 22, 2019.

Even before this weekend’s G7 summit in Biarritz, host Emmanuel Macron did away with the final communiqué. Officially to spur dialogue, the move, a G7 first, reflects the challenge of corralling a difficult cast of summiteers in undiplomatic times.


With last year’s turbulent edition of the Group of Seven summit not soon forgotten, Macron’s brazen adjustment effectively doubles as pre-emptive damage control.

After leaving the 2018 confab in Canada early, US President Donald Trump took umbrage at host Justin Trudeau’s concluding remarks in a salvo of tweets from Air Force One, calling the Canadian prime minister “very dishonest and weak” and backing out of the summit’s hard-won closing consensus before the ink had dried. The 2018 edition “was sort of the ultimate bad for a G7”, François Heisbourg, Senior Advisor for Europe at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, tells France 24. “In effect, the G7 came close to dying.”

'Today there is no Western world'

France is battening down the hatches in the self-styled surfing capital of Europe for this 45th annual summit. The festivities in Biarritz begin Saturday evening with an “informal dinner” for the G7 heads of state and government, which also include the British, Japanese, German and Italian leaders, while European Union envoys hold an eighth seat at the proverbial table. This year, Macron has invited guest countries Australia, Burkina Faso, Chile, Egypt, India, Rwanda, Senegal, Spain and South Africa to take part in the three-day multilateral huddle. The French leader chose tackling inequality as the 2019 summit’s headline theme.

French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing launched the annual format in 1975 as a sort of informal parlour for Western leaders. France last hosted the G7 in 2011, when members pledged billions, with Tunisia and Egypt on hand, to foster democratic reforms in the wake of the Arab Spring – an initiative dubbed the Deauville Partnership.

While this weekend’s summit maintains the traditional “family photo”, a 45th formal snapshot for the history books, it is the first to do away with the conciliatory final statement.

‘Interminable squabbling’

“The G7 remains to me a pertinent format and we wanted to maintain the lifeblood and that’s why I decided on a change in method and the end of the pre-negotiated communiqué,” Macron told reporters in Paris on Wednesday night, deriding “these communiqués that no one reads” that result from “interminable bureaucratic squabbling” between behind-the-scenes players. “Because, when it comes down to it, the G7 had become an enclosure for zooming in on disagreements,” Macron said.

“We have to adapt formats. There will be no final communiqué, but coalitions, commitments and follow-ups,” Macron said. “We must assume that, on one subject or another, a member of the club might not sign up.”

Trump's performance at the 2018 G7 Summit in Canada left an impression
Photo taken by German government photographer Jesco Denzel shows US President Donald Trump (R) talking with German Chancellor Angela Merkel (C) and other G7 leaders during the 2018 G7 Summit in Canada. Jesco Denzel/Bundesregierung/AFP

Heading into the summit on France’s Atlantic Coast, disagreements between the traditional allies are indeed plentiful – with even apparent softball topics throbbing sore points for the would-be allies.

“If you take the formal agenda of the G7 – inequality, trade, climate change – there is not going to be basic agreement between the participants,” Heisbourg says. “And notably between Trump and the other participants.”

The ongoing US-China trade war has spurred global recession jitters, with France keen for countries, including traditionally reticent Germany, to consider stimulus measures amid slump fears. “Maybe Trump will avoid a major trade clash because he sees how nervous the markets actually are on the trade issues,” Heisbourg offers. “Maybe he will refrain from the biggest and most brutal trade aggression towards China and/or the EU and confine himself to doing crazy things on Twitter like with Denmark. But that’s putting the bar of things pretty low.”


In a tweet last month, Trump blasted Macron’s “foolishness” in pressing for a universal tax on US digital giants – the so-called GAFA corporations: Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon. The teetotaling American has threatened to retaliate with 100-percent tariffs on French wine. The summit agenda for Monday includes a working lunch on “digital transformation”, with G7 leaders and their South African, Australian, Chilean and Indian counterparts on the guest list. As G7 president, France has campaigned for a Charter for an Open, Free and Safe Internet to “fight hate speech, cyber bullying and online terrorism”.

Highlighting yet another point of discord in the lead-up to Biarritz, Trump this week reiterated his threat to release European ISIS fighters who are detained in Syria into France and Germany if Paris and Berlin won’t agree to repatriate the fighters themselves. He also repeated his long-espoused desire to see Russia back in the fold, apparently without conditions, five years after Moscow’s ouster from the erstwhile G8 in punishment for annexing Crimea; Canada, Britain, France and Germany all retorted that they won’t hear of Russia’s return without progress on peace in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Europe is struggling to defuse tensions between the US and Iran after Washington unilaterally pulled out of the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal, leaving European signatories and their companies between a rock and a hard place. Macron met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Friday to iron out ideas for salvaging the deal ahead of the summit, but, as Trump reminded “Emmanuel” in a tweet earlier this month, “No one is authorized in any way, shape or form to represent us!” on the Iran dossier.

A distracted cast of leaders

Beyond Trump, the cast in Biarritz includes another unpredictable leader in newcomer Boris Johnson, making his début as British prime minister on the world stage just two months before Britain risks crashing out of the EU without a deal. Experts expect Johnson to seek closer ties with Trump as British influence in Europe wanes, with the carrot of a post-Brexit trade deal with Washington at stake.

But the Brexiteer Johnson, facing the threats of a no-confidence vote or a snap election at home, also needs Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to hope for any amended exit provisions before the October 31 Brexit deadline. Meeting Macron at the Elysée Palace on August 20, an effusive Johnson touted the prospect of “deepening and intensifying the friendship and partnership” between Britain and France. Any G7 clash on Iran – on which Britain has remained squarely with France and Germany versus an intractable Trump – would mean tricky choices for Johnson.

Suffice it to say that most G7 leaders heading to Biarritz are not living their best political lives. Most are distracted by internal politics. “We have about two participants who are politically alive, that’s [Japan’s Shinzo] Abe and Macron,” Heisbourg says. “We have one who is facing difficult elections in a months’ time, Trudeau. We have Merkel, who is on her way towards the exit. We have Johnson, who has one issue and only one, which is called Brexit. And then we have Trump, who lives in a world of his own.”

Not to mention Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who tendered his resignation on August 20 and arrives in Biarritz as a mere caretaker leader. Italy’s very governing line is in flux after the coalition Conte had represented collapsed.

All of those preoccupations are apt to affect the summit’s tone. Sciences Po Paris professor Bertrand Badie told Le Monde that “that sort of context can only incentivize the participants toward engaging in diplomatic posturing and so paralyze any concertation”.

Expectations are accordingly limited. “The G7’s best success this weekend in Biarritz would be if… nothing happens,” local newspaper Charente Libre opined, lamenting the absent-mindedness of navel-gazing leaders amid the rash of global crises. “One needs only project a few days to the summit’s official photo to understand that a neutral result would already be a great victory.”

And yet while diplomats may be on tenterhooks in Biarritz, this year’s summit could turn out to be a respite. In 2020, Trump will play host to the G7 in the US – in an election year.

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