5 takeaways from Britain’s G7 summit

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CARBIS BAY, England — The G7 have still got juice.

Or at least that’s the message leaders of the Group of Seven wealthy democracies tried to send on Sunday by committing to donate a billion vaccine doses and vowing to end the coronavirus pandemic, by sending a pointed message to China about human rights abuses and hostile military maneuvers, and mainly by standing together on a wide array of other big global challenges, including climate change, free trade and gender equality.
 
But even as the leaders celebrated their renewed cooperation, largely thanks to the arrival of U.S. President Joe Biden, their three days of meetings at the English seaside highlighted the elite geopolitical club’s increasing limitations — and its vulnerability to interference by its members’ domestic politics.

The summit host, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, spent quite a bit of time and energy in bilateral meetings unsuccessfully relitigating aspects of Brexit, his country’s divisive and distracting departure from the EU.
 
The leaders failed to reach agreement on setting a target for phasing out the use of coal in their own countries — a glaring stumble as they increasingly need to set an example on fighting climate change for the rest of the world. It was not lost on anyone that Joe Manchin, a Democratic senator from the heavily coal-reliant state of West Virginia, is crucial to Biden’s entire legislative agenda.

The bottom-line after another summit by the sea was multilateralism is back, but even with good intentions, that doesn’t mean big deals on big issues are easy.

Here are five takeaways from the summit:

1. No coal goal

Immediately after G7 summit finished, activists from the group Extinction Rebellion (XR) parked a van across a road near the venue. It didn’t impact the leaders; Biden had already choppered off. 

But the protest served to highlight the size of the gap between climate reality and G7 political reality.

The G7’s failure to set an end-date on coal was only the most glaring missed opportunity for the leaders to set a new global standard on climate change. They rejected a proposal to halt the production of diesel and petrol cars and barely touched the multi-billion dollar bill the developing world says must be paid to bring their own emissions to heel.

Even the slippery language on vaccines — was it 1 billion or 840 million they pomised? — will feed the distrust with which poor countries view the climate demands that rich governments place on the rest of the world. 

The EU was pushing for the G7 to address the risk of carbon leakage — where dirty industries move to other countries to escape higher emissions standards. In the end, Brussels, Berlin and Paris managed to get an acknowledgment from the other leaders. But the EU is forging ahead solo with a plan to levy high-emissions imports.

Much of this plays into China’s hands ahead of the big COP26 climate conference. The world’s biggest emitter benefits when it can crouch among its developing-country allies. A real offer on finance and vaccines might split that group when the talks get tough.

It’s now up to Italy, which hosts the G20 in October, to try and salvage a coherent message before the baton passes back to the U.K. and COP26 in Glasgow in November.

— Karl Mathiesen

2. China chided

China emerged as one of the main topics for the G7 leaders. Two years on since their last physical meeting, President Xi Jinping has tightened his grip on Hong Kong and stepped up China’s military presence around Taiwan, while international attention on the plight of Muslims in Xinjiang has grown dramatically. 

In unequivocal language, the G7 leaders directly mention a number of contentious issues that will roil Beijing, including a call for another investigation into the origins of the coronavirus in China, as well as endorsing a $100 billion “ambition” to compete with Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative that has built massive infrastructure in developing countries. 

While Europe has on occasion taken a hardline on China, the G7 statement will likely be seen by Beijing as the result of efforts by Washington to build an alliance with the EU and the U.K. against it. 

Forced labor is one example of a hardening of attitudes. While the G7 leaders didn’t call out China by name, the language is clear as to which country it is referencing — and the call to action louder than ever before. 

“We are concerned by the use of all forms of forced labour in global supply chains, including state-sponsored forced labour of vulnerable groups and minorities, including in the agricultural, solar, and garment sectors,” the leaders said in their final statement, adding that their trade ministers will come up with a detailed plan within the next four months. 

All this just as the Chinese Communist Party is planning to celebrate its centenary in just over two weeks.

— Stuart Lau

3. Shot down: Vaccine pledge under fire

It took some creative accounting — including picking a pre-summit start date for the calculations — but G7 leaders are celebrating the symbolically important goal of pledging 1 billion coronavirus vaccine donations to the developing world.

Activists and politicians are less impressed. Their verdict? Not enough vaccines and not enough urgency.

The One Campaign, co-founded by musician Bono, said that although the summit “had high potential,” it had “not delivered” — putting the world at risk.

The leaders of the wealthy G7 countries “leave Cornwall having failed to take the real action needed to end the pandemic,” said Edwin Ikhuoria, executive director for Africa at the humanitarian nonprofit.

A group of non-governmental organizations called Civil Society 7 expressed a similar sentiment.

“Without 10 billion vaccines, the removal of patents and investment in healthcare systems pledges to inoculate the world by the end of next year ring hollow,” said the group, which counts Action for Global Health and Unicef UK among its members.

Max Lawson, head of inequality policy at U.K. charity Oxfam, said that the “G7 summit will live on in infamy.”

Former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown had already lined up behind the critics, calling the target “an unforgivable moral failure.”

Actor and singer Selena Gomez also didn’t miss the chance to weigh in. “@BorisJohnson, 5million doses by September is too little too late. You promised Britain would donate ALL its surplus vaccines,” said Gomez on Twitter.

— Carlo Martuscelli

4. Brexit bites

If the G7 was meant to project Global Britain onto the world stage, it missed the mark. Somehow the summit ended up being overshadowed by Brexit, ever-present and inescapable.

Early signs were promising, when Boris Johnson avoided a confrontation with Joe Biden over the U.S. president’s concerns about the Northern Ireland protocol and emerged all smiles. The gathering itself — going ahead in person, hosted by Britain, with a sympathetic group of four extra guests — looked auspicious for the U.K.’s ambition of pivoting towards a looser alliance of democracies after leaving the EU.

Then, out of the nowhere, Canada weighed in to offer its assistance in preserving the Northern Ireland peace process — followed by a whole day of bilateral talks between Johnson and EU leaders in which they teamed up to press home the message that the U.K. must stick to its commitments under the withdrawal agreement. 

Johnson was clearly irked by this, letting it be known that “some of our friends here today do seem to misunderstand that the U.K. is a single country and a single territory.” It later emerged that French President Emmanuel Macron had apparently suggested that Northern Ireland is not part of the U.K. in the same way that Toulouse is part of France, which went down with the Brits about as well as an uncooked sausage. 

In the official readouts of his meetings, Johnson stressed areas of agreement: resolutions to send vaccines around the world and tackle climate change. He denied that Brexit had ended up dominating proceedings, insisting that “the vast, vast majority of the conversations that we’ve had over the last three or four days have been about other subjects” with a “fantastic degree of harmonies between the leaders.”

Alas, nobody else seemed to have received this particular memo. What’s not clear is whether Johnson could have done anything to avoid this flaring up, given EU leaders were determined to use the occasion to make their feelings clear.

— Esther Webber

5. Tiptoeing on trade

The pandemic has ripped through the global economy and ramped up protectionism as countries raced to insulate themselves from the COVID-19 virus. 

Still, with a new U.S. administration and a new director-general of the World Trade Organization, hopes were high for a strong line on how to reform that body. After all, ahead of the summit business leaders said WTO was drinking at the “last-chance saloon.”

But ambition was always going to be crimped by the extreme impact of the pandemic on the global economy. No one came out of this feeling that the U.S. and the EU had fixed their considerable differences on how to reform the WTO’s dispute resolution arm, the appellate body, that is seen as vital to the smooth functioning of world trade.

Yet, quietly there is a consensus building. It goes beyond the Washington-Brussels row over how far-reaching the appellate body’s powers ought to be. 

Japan, the U.K., Canada and other members of the Ottawa Group of would-be reformers are slowly closing in on finding a way to speed up decisions, by allowing some reference to old cases, while steering a course that Washington will find more palatable by avoiding too great a reliance on precedent.

Having Washington back around the table, in a more constructive sense, is what might tip the balance in favor of a breakthrough at the WTO’s ministerial council (MC12) in December. That is why, when it comes to saving the global trading system, this G7 took on a “significance, and a relevance and importance that is probably more significant than any time in the last five or six years,” Canadian High Commissioner to the U.K. Ralph Goodale told POLITICO.

— Anna Isaac

Jakob Hanke Vela contributed reporting.



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