G7 Summit in Biarritz: Who Will Sigh with Relief?

Emmanuel Macron and his ministers might have had to learn how to deal with the grass-roots protests from the ‘gilets jaunes’, but they need no lessons in hosting the elite. They showed themselves adept from the start at showing off their country on the international stage, President Putin’s early visit to Versailles and President Trump’s invitation to Bastille Day being stellar examples. This year’s G7 summit, to be held in the stylish Atlantic resort of Biarritz, is set to continue the trend. France offers some glorious backdrops, and Macron has used them expertly to his own and France’s advantage.

But how will this year’s summit add up? There are at least two new dynamics. The first – as I am writing from London – is the UK’s new Prime Minister. This will be Boris Johnson’s first official outing to the gathering that regards itself as the world’s top table. How will he conduct himself? How will he be received?

Contrary to the preconceptions of many, Boris Johnson – for the most part – knows how to behave in top international company. He was born in New York and grew up in Brussels; his father worked at the World Bank and the EU. He was mayor of London for two terms, and travelled far and wide as the city’s ambassador, welcoming the world to London as host of the 2012 Olympics. Boris is no newcomer to either the protocol or the opportunities of such occasions. There are times when his confidence in such surroundings produces gaffes. I rather suspect he might be on best behaviour, in Biarritz, with his considerable personal charm uppermost.

He can expect the warmest of welcomes from the US President. After all, Donald Trump enthusiastically supported Johnson’s ambition to become Prime Minister, cannot wait for the UK to leave the European Union, and perhaps senses something of a kindred spirit in the tousle-haired blond. The atmosphere could be cooler with the French and German leaders, who have made no secret of their impatience with way the UK, as they see it, still fails to understand the workings of the EU. Johnson’s mentions of Germany’s Nazi past have also not endeared him to Angela Merkel or Germans generally.

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But Johnson is taking the precaution of paying bilateral visits to Berlin and Paris before travelling to Biarritz, in an effort perhaps to clear the air. And while neither Merkel nor Macron would probably have chosen him to be UK prime minister, now he has won the Conservative leadership by a solid margin and become prime minister, they will pay him the respect due to that office. Their mood could be lightened by the questions hanging over Johnson’s tenure – will there be an early election in the UK; would Johnson lose?

The cordiality between Trump and Johnson could change the dynamic, however. Although Trump has excellent relations with Japan’s Prime Minister, at last year’s G7 summit in Canada the US President seemed very much the odd man out. France, Germany, Italy and Canada made no secret of their disagreements with Trump, while the UK’s then prime minister, Theresa May, was already in political trouble at home and was still smarting from the US President’s open contempt for her approach to the Brexit negotiations.

Trump is known to dislikes multilateral gatherings, preferring personal talks with foreign leaders one-to-one. At this year’s G7, though, Trump could have a “buddy” in Johnson, and vice versa. Whether it makes him more collegiate, or shifts the emphasis of the summit discussions away from a multilateral approach towards a more differentiated state-by-state approach, will be something to watch for. As will Boris Johnson’s success, if any, in preparing the way for new trade deals and projecting “global Britain”.

The other change this year – potentially far more significant than the arrival of Boris Johnson on the international scene - is that the absence of China will loom much larger. There have been rumblings in recent years that the size of China’s economy – though not its per capita GDP – should warrant an invitation to the G7. But the incipient trade war between Washington and Beijing clearly rules this out, while leaving China essentially an economic, and increasingly military, giant in the wings. There is a special guest this year, but it is the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.

The absence of China, either as a member or a guest, is one reason why the influence of the G7 may seem to be waning. One way or another, most of the economies represented at the G7 are impacted by the growth and increased international clout of China. For the US tariffs are at the centre of the current dispute; but security and the telecoms power of Huawei are posing questions for all. The G20 - which includes not just China, but Russia and the other so-called Brics countries, India and Brazil – is gaining in prominence, as the increased media coverage of this year’s summit in Osaka showed. Increasingly, this grouping looks a lot more like the future of the global economy, than the G7.

So while Russia may have resented its suspension from what was then the G8 five years ago and the cancellation of the Sochi summit, the G20 is probably the more useful discussion group, where – potentially – more can get done. 

The theme of this year’s Biarritz meeting is inequality – in all aspects, including climate change. But G7 summits have a record of being de-railed at the last moment by some quite unexpected international crisis, which skews the agenda away from priorities carefully negotiated over months by the national ‘sherpas’.

This year, the few days before the summit include not just Boris Johnson’s meetings with European leaders, but President Putin’s meeting with the French President, when the conflict in eastern Ukraine featured on the agenda. While Canada has a special interest in Ukraine, the G7 is unlikely to be the place where significant progress can be made, not least because neither Russia nor Ukraine will be there, and any settlement will need their agreement. The EU and /or the OSCE offer more promising frameworks for that to happen.

G7-watchers will nonetheless be looking out for that unexpected event to hijack the agenda. The political situation in the UK is volatile to say the least, and with such unpredictable characters as Boris Johnson and Donald Trump attending, drama within the meeting halls cannot be ruled out. In the event that all passes off quietly and according to plan, it will not only be President Macron who will sigh with relief.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.