The 2020 G7, the fourth of the Trump era, has been postponed to September. It is no coincidence: in the US, the novel coronavirus continues to take its toll (with over 110,000 deaths as of June 9th), unemployment has more than quadrupled from 3% to 13%, and George Floyd’s death two weeks ago has sparked racial and social protests that continue to this day. Hosting a G7 summit under these circumstances would have been extremely risky. Yet, paradoxically, Trump hoped to be able to pull it off until just a few days ago.
One of the reasons why the G7 has been postponed has most to do with the cold reception by European partners (and Germany in particular) to the proposal, advocated by Trump, to hold the summit in person in the US, instead of via videoconference. An in-person summit would have served as a powerful signal in favour of the US President, who is eager to show that the health crisis in America is now over, and that his country can gradually go back to business as usual in view of the November presidential election. But European governments found this to be unreasonable, especially because on this side of the Atlantic most decision makers are still calling for caution and moderation. Moreover, European G7 members appeared to be less than eager to spend political capital at home in order to attend, in person, a summit that did not promise to lead to many steps forward.
On the opposite, this year’s summit is set to be low-key. All conflicts and tensions between the two shores of the Atlantic that brought to the many setbacks of the past three years are here to stay. Sources of divisions have resurfaced on several topics on the summit’s agenda: geopolitical rebalancing, trade and multilateralism, climate change, aid and development. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has added the international healthcare response to the list of transatlantic frictions.
On geopolitics, just a few weeks ago Trump declared the G7 obsolete (“It is a very outdated group of countries”) just like he did with NATO in 2016. This certainly did not serve to convince European G7 leaders that they should strive to attend to the summit in person. On the flipside, Trump has also proposed to expand the summit’s membership to Australia, South Korea, India (so far so good, more or less, given that all three countries are full-fledged democracies), and Russia. However, Russia was expelled from the G8 in 2014, after the Russo-Ukrainian War and Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, and its readmission to the summit was conditioned to the country’s full implementation of the Minsk Protocol. While European governments are working at different speeds for a diplomatic thaw with Moscow, the proposal to readmit Russia to the summit has quickly been deemed unacceptable by all of them. Facing this rebuke, Trump has already expressed his willingness to host all four non-G7 countries as guests in September, while also announcing the withdrawal of 9,500 US soldiers from Germany – something that has been interpreted by some as a tit-for-tat on Chancellor Merkel’s hesitation to attend the G7 summit in person.
On the trade side, things have not improved. On a positive note, the healthcare emergency has led the US to push further into the future possible tariffs on European cars. However, just a few days ago Trump envisaged the possibility for new tariffs in case European countries did not open up to imports of American lobster. And new tariffs have been in place since last October, when the US imposed duties on USD 7.5 billion of agri-food imports from Europe in retaliation to EU subsidies to Airbus (the EU could soon respond with a list of new tariffs worth around EUR 12 billion). Finally, the US is threatening to impose new duties on those European countries that introduced – or may introduce – a digital tax targeting tech companies.
Moving to climate change, November is almost here. This will be a crucial date not only in view of the US presidential election, but also because (if nothing changes) the day after the election, November 4th, will also be the day when the US will officially be out of the 2015 Paris Agreement. While it is true that the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed climate issues in the background, the fact that climate change remains one of the biggest challenges of this century is undeniable. Here, the US position is far removed from the European one, given that EU governments in December have endorsed the so-called European Green Deal, a far-reaching proposal on mitigating climate change from the European Commission. A commitment that has been further strengthened in the context of the “Next Generation EU”, a recovery fund of 750 billion euros recently proposed by the European Commission.
Finally, on the healthcare side, European G7 governments are obviously embarrassed by the American decision to suspend financing and then cut all ties with the World Health Organization. The US accused the WHO of being too pro-China, and therefore having refrained from pressuring Beijing to be as transparent as possible on domestic developments on the COVID-19 epidemic, before it turned into a pandemic. Now the WHO faces a funding cut worth almost a quarter of its total budget, and if it wants to maintain its current operations such a cut will have to be compensated by European or Chinese funds. True, the US has recently committed to donate USD 1.2 billion to GAVI, the vaccine alliance, in order to research a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 (for comparison, the European Commission and Italy have respectively pledged to donate USD 300 million). Nonetheless, Trump’s stance towards the WHO is only the latest evidence of his preference for bilateral, rather than multilateral action.
This preference, of course, goes at the expense the G7. It also goes against all those who still believe that relaunching economic growth and coordinating fiscal policies during and after a global pandemic should go through not only the G20, but the G7 as well. And that this could only be achieved by searching for that lowest common denominator among democratic advanced economies that, unfortunately, over the past four years has become narrower and narrower.