Major Issues, Minimal Expectations for G-7 Summit in France
The world economy is getting shakier by the day, the Amazon has burned its way to the center of the climate change debate, and the leaders of the world's leading democracies will sit around a single table, theoretically charged with coming up with solutions for the biggest problems of the day.
Except that U.S. President Donald Trump is largely uninterested in international agreements, and other G-7 leaders are seriously hobbled at home by political scandal, low poll numbers or lame duck status. Welcome to the annual Group of Seven summit, which begins Saturday in the southern French resort town of Biarritz.
French President Emmanuel Macron, the host, has already made clear that he has little expectation that Trump will join any statement on fighting climate change even as the issue shot to the top of the agenda with the widespread fires in the Amazon. He already rejected Trump's request to let Russia rejoin the group five years after being expelled over its seizure of Crimea. And he is trying to hold together the European line on the Iran nuclear deal over U.S. objections.
At the same meeting last year, Trump left early and repudiated the final statement in a tweet from Air Force One. This year, Macron said, there will be no final statement.
"The situation is difficult because on subjects like trade, Iran or the climate, for the first time in a long time the seven are not unanimous," Macron told reporters earlier this week. "That's why I wanted to avoid pointless declarations. Despite that, I think this work is indispensable because we have to exchange with the United States, because we have to find convergences, because I think it's in our interest to rebuild coordination."
Lowered expectations are nothing new for the G-7, but this year's intent seems to be just to avoid diplomatic catastrophe, salvage the possible, and show voters that their leaders have a role on the world stage.
"When you have a figure whose positions, whose whims, whose interests seem to change on a dime, it's impossible to plan coordinated policy on that basis. I think what we're seeing is most countries now just trying to wait this out. There's going to be no advancement on the big things that really matter," said Tristen Naylor, a researcher focused on international summits.
"There's going to be no big moves on climate change as a united front of seven countries. There's going to be no progress when it comes to the elimination of protectionist trade barriers. It's simply not going to happen. So the best that they can do is just tread water, stop things from becoming worse. That I think is what success at this G-7 will look like," Naylor said.
All eyes will be on the dynamic between Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, two figures who relish the unpredictability they have sown. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is on her way out of office. Canadian leader Justin Trudeau, up for re-election this fall, is at the center of a political scandal. Macron himself is deeply unpopular at home, and the yellow vest protesters who have plagued him since last year have followed him to Biarritz.
Even this beautiful resort town is rather grumpy at being locked down during the final week of summer break for most of France. The appropriately named Bellevue congress center where the leaders will gather Saturday night overlooks the beach beloved by surfers and swimmers alike. It is entirely empty.