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Rain, rivalries and renewal as G7 meet in England

Published: in European News by .

Enthusiasm and apprehension as Biden brings US back to global table.

FALMOUTH, England — When other world leaders said they were looking forward to Joe Biden’s first G7 summit, and a return of the U.S. to its traditional role as rainmaker on the world stage, they didn’t expect a “mizzle” — a misty drizzle in which rain appears to defy gravity, rising from the ground up, into blinding fog.

But mizzle is what greeted Biden on the southwestern coast of England on Thursday, grounding his helicopter and forcing his host, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, to shift the venue of their one-on-one rekindling of the special relationship. Their meeting was supposed to be held at the hilltop castle on St. Michael’s Mount, a tidal island that, appropriately enough, was a production site for “Game of Thrones.”  

As things stand, however, no one is predicting much intrigue — let alone bloodshed or sex — as the leaders of the world’s advanced democratic economies gather for their first meeting in nearly two years, especially without Donald Trump around to play the antihero role of combustible disruptor.

Biden, 78, is one of three septuagenarians attending their inaugural summit, along with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, 73, and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, 72. Add in German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen who, according to an old joke, regards sparkling water as a stiff drink, and the club seems quite austere — even though austerity is hardly the global economic vibe right now.

The francophone forty-somethings — French President Emmanuel Macron, European Council President Charles Michel and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — are also unlikely to cut loose. With Canadians still living under pandemic travel restrictions, Trudeau in particular is keen on being seen as having left home only to conduct essential business.

The pandemic will be near the top of that essential agenda, with the leaders eager to show a united front in pushing to end the health crisis by 2022 through wider access to vaccines, as well as promoting economic recovery. But doing so will require them to put aside some tense rivalries.

Welcome gift

Biden, in a classic Washington power play, sought to make America’s global reputation great again by announcing just ahead of the summit that the U.S. would donate 500 million doses of BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine to help needy countries around the world.

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Publicly, European leaders applauded the move, but they also bristled given that for more than a year, the U.S. effectively prohibited exports of vaccines as it worked to inoculate its own population.

Von der Leyen, at a news conference on Thursday morning, repeatedly touted how the EU had served as the world’s major exporter of vaccines, and referred to Biden’s announcement as “potential.”

“We do subscribe to the G7 aim to end the pandemic by 2022 by stepping up the global vaccination,” she said. “The European Union has from the beginning contributed massively to this … We have also from the beginning ensured that the domestic vaccination goes hand in hand with exports to the rest of the world.

“Today, 100 million Europeans are fully vaccinated. We achieved that whilst never stopping export,” she continued, adding: “I am very glad to see that the draft communiqué reflects this now and it is very encouraging to listen to the potential announcements of the United States.”

Michel, at the same news conference, also hammered home the point. “The EU is at the forefront of ensuring global equitable access to vaccines, especially to developing countries,” he said, adding: “The EU is the largest exporter of COVID-19 vaccines to the world.”

And Macron chipped in as well, telling reporters in Paris that the U.S. must end any obstacles to exports, noting that India had complained of not being able to procure needed components. “I hope that there will be progress at the G7, because it’s the Americans blocking — it’s lifting export restrictions which, for months, prevented the Serum Institute of India from producing.” But he also praised Biden’s pledge to donate half a billion doses.

“It’s a massive announcement by the U.S.,” he said, adding: “I’m delighted. It’s a wonderful announcement. If they are more ambitious than us, we must join them and do at least as much.”

But on patents, he was critical again. “On intellectual property, they established the principle, but for the time being, I haven’t seen the details of the American proposal,” he said.

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Welcome guest

Overall, the Europeans are thrilled to have Biden at the table in Trump’s place — eliminating a sense of constant unease and unpredictability.

In 2018, Trump signed on to the G7 leaders’ communiqué at a summit in Quebec, only to repudiate it hours later, mid-air, while flying from Canada to Asia. That prompted Macron, hosting the summit the following year in Biarritz, to forego a formal statement, thereby preventing Trump from dismantling it.

Last year, when the U.S. held the chair, the Europeans, led by Merkel, simply refused to attend a summit hosted by Trump. They used the pandemic partly as an excuse but were also apprehensive that Trump would attempt to use them as political props in his re-election campaign.

The absence of a summit last year is just one reason the elite club seems off the pace. The pandemic, as well as the climate change crisis, have confronted leaders with problems that the richest countries can’t possibly solve on their own.

On that front, Draghi, the former European Central Bank president, who will be attending his first G7 summit as Italian prime minister, is now positioning himself as a bridge between the G7 and the broader G20, which Italy is chairing this year, with a summit scheduled for the fall in Rome.

“Our objective is to make sure that what comes out of this meeting can be a stepping stone for the G20,” a senior Italian official said, “because we think a lot of the challenges that are relevant particularly this year are not exclusively rich-world problems. The G20 is where you can make sure you have a broader set of countries — this is especially relevant on issues like climate, where we want an ambitious deal.”

The leaders will also confer on what stands to be a landmark agreement on corporate taxation, including a minimum global corporate tax, as part of efforts to prevent some countries from acting as tax havens and some big corporations from picking and choosing among governments in order to minimize their tax liabilities.

With the leaders at least well-positioned to achieve a mind-meld, they also intend to tackle some thorny foreign policy issues, on which they don’t always see eye-to-eye, particularly in regards to relations with China.

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Michel noted that they intended to press Beijing both on economic points and on human rights.

“The EU’s approach is clear: China is a partner, a competitor and a potential systemic rival,” he said. “We must strike the right balance for our best interests between engagement and standing firmly by our values. We have to work with China to address global challenges, like climate change, or regional issues, like Afghanistan or the Iran nuclear deal. And economic relations with China are important for economic recovery.

“At the same time,” he added, “we will defend ourselves against practices that pose security risks, distort the level playing field, or are incompatible with our values. We will continue to stand up to defend human rights and the rule of law in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and elsewhere.”

For Johnson, the newlywed British prime minister, the seaside summit is supposed to be the big international debut of Global Britain — his post-Brexit vision of an independent nation reclaiming its empirical greatness. But there is also a risk that lingering disputes related to quitting the EU will undermine his efforts, as the Biden administration clearly feels compelled to reiterate its support for Ireland. The EU leaders, too, reiterated their demands that the U.K. live up to the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement and post-Brexit trade accord.

And no matter the vaccine rivalries or the mizzle, the significance of a renewed partnership with Biden’s Washington is not lost on the other members of the club.

“Indeed we are very much looking forward to have this G7 again, finally to have the G7 countries, likeminded countries that share the same values, that share the same interests and that share also the same world view, ” von der Leyen said on Thursday. “So it’s good that the U.S. are back and it’s good that the G7 … is back again too.”

Rym Momtaz contributed reporting.

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