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G7 leaders arrive for summit in France as global disputes threaten unity

Markus Schreiber, Pool / AFP | (From the left) Britain's PM Boris Johnson, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte and President of the European Council Donald Tusk in Biarritz on August 24, 2019

Squabbles erupted among G7 nations on Saturday even before their leaders had gathered for an annual summit, exposing sharp differences on global trade tensions, Brexit, and how to respond to the fires raging in the Amazon rainforest.

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French President Emmanuel Macron, the summit host, planned the three-day meeting in the Atlantic seaside resort of Biarritz as a chance to unite a group of wealthy countries that has struggled in recent years to speak with one voice.

Macron set an agenda for the group - France, Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States - that included the defence of democracy, gender equality, education and the environment. He invited Asian, African and Latin American leaders to join them for a global push on these issues.

However, in a bleak assessment of relations between once-close allies, European Council President Donald Tusk said it was getting "increasingly" hard to find common ground.

"This is another G7 summit which will be a difficult test of unity and solidarity of the free world and its leaders," he told reporters ahead of the meeting. "This may be the last moment to restore our political community."

'Today there is no Western world'

U.S. President Donald Trump brought last year’s G7 summit to an acrimonious end, walking out early from the gathering in Canada and rejecting the final communique.

Trump arrived in France a day after lashing back at a new round of Chinese tariffs by announcing Washington would impose an additional 5% duty on some $550 billion worth of Chinese imports, the latest tit-for-tat trade war escalation by the world’s two largest economies.

"So far so good," Trump told reporters as he sat for lunch on a seafront terrace with Macron, saying the two leaders had a special relationship. "We’ll accomplish a lot this weekend."

Macron listed foreign policy issues the two would address, including Libya, Syria and North Korea, adding that they shared the objective of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

However, the initial smiles could not disguise their opposing approaches to many problems, including the knotty question of protectionism and tax.

Before his arrival, Trump repeated a threat to tax French wines in retaliation for a new French levy on digital services, which he says unfairly targets U.S. companies.

Two U.S. officials said the Trump delegation was also irked that Macron had skewed the focus of the G7 meeting to "niche issues" at the expense of the global economy, which many leaders worry is slowing sharply and at risk of slipping into recession.

French riot police briefly used water cannons and tear gas on Saturday to disperse anti-capitalism protesters in Bayonne, near Biarritz.

A police helicopter circled overhead as dozens of protesters, some wearing face masks, taunted lines of police.

Spat over 'Mr No Deal' Brexit

Adding to the unpredictable dynamic between the G7 leaders are the new realities facing Brexit-bound Britain: dwindling influence in Europe and growing dependency on the United States.

New Prime Minister Boris Johnson will want to strike a balance between not alienating Britain’s European allies and not irritating Trump and possibly jeopardising future trade ties.  Johnson and Trump will hold bilateral talks on Sunday morning.

Johnson and European Council head Donald Tusk sparred before the summit over who would be to blame if Britain leaves the EU on Oct. 31 without a withdrawal agreement in place.

Tusk told reporters he was open to ideas from Johnson on how to avoid a no-deal Brexit when the two men meet on Sunday.

"I still hope that PM Johnson will not like to go down in history as Mr No Deal," said Tusk, who leads the political direction of the 28-nation European Union.

Johnson, who has said since he took office last month that he will take the country out of the bloc on Oct. 31 regardless of whether a deal can be reached, later retorted that it would be Tusk himself who would carry the mantle if Britain could not secure a new withdrawal agreement.

"I would say to our friends in the EU if they don’t want a no-deal Brexit then we’ve got to get rid of the backstop from the treaty," Johnson told reporters, referring to the Irish backstop mechanism that would guarantee that the border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland remains open after Brexit.

"If Donald Tusk doesn’t want to go down as Mr No Deal then I hope that point will be borne in mind by him too," Johnson said on his flight to France.

Johnson is trying to persuade EU leaders to drop the backstop from a withdrawal agreement that was negotiated by his predecessor, Theresa May, but rejected three times by the British parliament as the United Kingdom struggles to fulfill a referendum vote three years ago to leave the bloc.

'Not the way to proceed'

Despite the Brexit tensions, diplomats played down the likelihood of Trump and Johnson joining hands against the rest, citing Britain’s foreign policy alignment with Europe on issues from Iran and trade to climate change.

"There won’t be a G5+2," one senior G7 diplomat said.

Indeed, Johnson said he would tell Trump to pull back from a trade war that is already destabilising economic growth around the world.

"This is not the way to proceed," he said. "Apart from everything else, those who support the tariffs are at risk of incurring the blame for the downturn in the global economy, irrespective of whether or not that is true."

'Money for the rich'

Anti-summit protests have become common, and on Saturday thousands of anti-globalisation activists, Basque separatists and « yellow vest » protesters marched peacefully across France’s border with Spain to demand action from the leaders.

"It’s more money for the rich and nothing for the poor. We see the Amazonian forests burning and the Arctic melting," said Alain Missana, an electrician wearing a yellow vest - symbol of anti-government protests that have rattled France for months.

EU leaders piled pressure on Friday on Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro over fires raging in the Amazon rainforest.

Macron said Bolsonaro had lied in playing down concerns about climate change at a G20 summit in Japan in June, and threatened to veto a trade pact between the European Union and the Mercosur bloc of South American countries.

The UK’s Johnson has voiced deep concern about the forest blazes, but appeared to disagree with Macron on how to respond.

"There are all sorts of people who will take any excuse at all to interfere with trade and to frustrate trade deals and I don’t want to see that," he said.

(REUTERS)

 

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