Saro Thiruppathy takes stock of the challenges facing G7 member states

Italy’s Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni – the host of this year’s G7 Summit held in Sicily’s ‘Pearl of the Ionian Sea’ Taormina – was joined by the heads of seven of the world’s wealthiest economies: Germany’s Angela Merkel, Canada’s Justin Trudeau, Britain’s Theresa May, Japan’s Shinzō Abe, France’s Emmanuel Macron and America’s Donald Trump.

The European Union (EU) – which is a non-enumerated member – was represented at the 26-27 May summit by the Presidents of the European Union and European Council.

There were four newcomers this year – viz. Gentiloni, May, Trump and Macron – although the outcome of the 8 June general election in the UK, following which May’s premiership has come under intense scrutiny, together with the forthcoming September poll in Germany and events in the US leave only Gentiloni and Macron with a clearly sustainable mandate of governance.

Initiated in 1975 by former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and ex-German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, a group of six (G6) nations met to discuss the recession and financial crisis triggered by the first oil shock of 1973. Thereafter, the group met annually under a rotating presidency.

Over the next two decades, Canada and Russia joined this elite group but in 2014, the then-G8 suspended the Russians for their annexation of Crimea, and affirmed its support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence.

The G7’s discussions cover many global issues – both political and non-political – and its deliberations are summarised and publicised through a communiqué.

AFRICA’S PLIGHT By hosting the G7 Summit on the island of Sicily – which has taken in tens of thousands of migrants over the past four years, as they flee their countries torn apart by war and poverty – Gentiloni had hoped to make Africa the major focus by calling for a new partnership with the continent involving aid and investment across all sectors, with innovation and development as the core objectives.

At a meeting between a contingent of six African leaders (from Ethiopia, Kenya, Tunisia, Chad, Guinea and Nigeria) and G7 heads of state on the second day of the summit, when issues that are challenging Africa were discussed, Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou urged the rich nations to act urgently and address the crisis in neighbouring Libya.

Niger is a key transit point where thousands of desperate people flee Libya to seek safety in Europe with countless numbers dying as they cross the Mediterranean Sea in rickety boats on journeys facilitated by human traffickers and smugglers.

But Gentiloni and the African leaders were unsuccessful in their bid as the Americans and British were more focussed on security. A leading news agency quoted a European diplomat saying that they had also wanted to water down the expansive language on the freedom of movement. Nevertheless, the G7 leaders supported the proposal to build the capacity of African youth.

Aid groups were extremely disappointed that the G7 failed to address the problems dogging Africa and felt the summit had wasted an opportunity to stave off what could be the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II. Twenty million people in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria are facing famine and starvation.

TRUMP’S FIRSTS This year’s summit was also a watershed as far as the US is concerned. At a time when gatherings of world leaders are marked by diplomacy and courtesy, many watched in disbelief as Trump made a belligerent debut on the European stage.

Unlike his interactions with the Saudis and Israelis only days earlier, Trump’s confrontational attitude towards America’s European allies was manifested in his power handshake with Macron, long harangue to NATO members (on their respective financial contributions to the alliance) and shoving aside Montenegro’s Prime Minister to take centre stage during a photo op.

Even more seriously, Trump did not publicly endorse Article 5 that guarantees the principle of collective defence, which is at the heart of NATO’s founding treaty, committing its members to protect each other if attacked. Trump seemed to be unaware of or dismiss the fact that NATO invoked Article 5 for the first time in its history following the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States.

Trump’s conduct at the G7 Summit was no better. Having first made other members wait for a group photo, Trump moved to gain a vantage point for the picture. He delayed committing to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and decided to ride a golf cart to the venue instead of joining his compatriots in a walk along the streets of Taormina on the final day. This could have been due to exhaustion or to underline the distance between him and the others.

On a lighter note, the media highlighted the budding friendship between two charismatic younger leaders Trudeau and Macron, which they promptly dubbed a ‘bromance.’

G7’S EXCEPTION The G7 leaders with the exception of Trump seem to agree on many of the issues discussed at the summit. Critical issues like migration and the desperate need for urgent aid to Africa to stave off famine did not have the desired outcome, although the deteriorating conditions in Syria and threat of nuclear attacks by North Korea were discussed.

While the communiqué reaffirms the strong commitment of G7 member states to the Paris climate deal, it bluntly notes that the US is in the “process of reviewing its policies on climate change and on the Paris Agreement, and thus is not in a position to join the consensus on these topics.” Merkel has labelled the result of the “six against one” discussion as “very difficult, not to say very unsatisfactory.”

On the other hand, Trump agreed to the language in the final G7 communiqué that pledged to fight protectionism and commit to a rules-based system of international trade.

The document also dwells at length on foreign policy conundrums like the situations in Ukraine, North Korea, Syria and Libya, as well as the East and South China seas, along with fighting protectionism, unfair trade policies and ISIS.

It also covers the G7’s concerns about the global economy and recovery; Bari Policy Agenda on Growth and Inequalities; need for continuous effort to fight gender inequality; migration; collective support for food security, nutrition and sustainable agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa; various aspects of innovation, skills and labour; and global health security.

Casting a shadow over the summit was the Manchester bombing. In a show of solidarity with the United Kingdom, G7 leaders pressured internet companies and social media platforms to intervene, and stop the spread of hateful ideology.

EUROPE’S DESTINY Returning to the US, Trump attacked Germany by tweeting: “We have a MASSIVE trade deficit with Germany, plus they pay FAR LESS than they should on NATO & military. Very bad for US. This will change.”

“The times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over as I have experienced in the past few days… And so all I can say is that we Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands,” Merkel said at a recent election rally in Bavaria, referring to the Trump phenomenon.

Gentiloni agrees with Merkel about Europe needing to forge its own path, stating: “This takes nothing away from the importance of our trans-Atlantic ties and alliance with the United States. But the importance we place on these ties cannot mean that we abandon fundamental principles such as our commitment to fight climate change, and in favour of open societies and free trade.”

Trump’s announcement on 1 June to pull the US out of the Paris climate accord has set in motion several global dynamics with China and the EU continuing to grow in political stature as they take the lead in reducing carbon emissions.

“The EU and China are joining forces to forge ahead on the implementation of the Paris Agreement and accelerate the global transition to clean energy,” the EU’s Climate Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete told The Guardian not long ago.

It is also possible that Europe will unite in the true sense of a European Union. The rest of the world will move on while the Trump administration fights with old allies, makes new enemies and cosies up to the Saudis, Israelis and Vladimir Putin… for the next three and a half years, should he last that long; or longer, were he to be re-elected.

Interesting days are ahead!