BIARRITZ, France — Efforts to salvage consensus among the Group of Seven rich democracies on the economy, trade and environment were fraying around the edges even as leaders were arriving before their three-day summit in southern France.
European Council President Donald Tusk said the summit in the seaside resort of Biarritz would be “a difficult test of the unity and solidarity of the free world and its leaders” and that “this may be the last moment to restore our political community.”
Even as Tusk, who presides over the council of leaders of the 28-member European Union, said the last thing the bloc wanted was a trade dispute with the United States and callled for “an end to trade wars,” he had to promise to retaliate against U.S. products if U.S. President Donald Trump carries through on a threat to impose tariffs on French wine. Trump made the threat in response to a proposed French tax on internet companies.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who is hosting the summit, 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.
Macron abruptly put the Amazon fires on the agenda and threatened to block an EU trade deal with several South American states, including Brazil. Ireland joined in the threat. German Chancellor Angela Merkel disagreed, with her office saying Saturday that blocking the Mercosur deal won’t reduce the destruction of rainforest in Brazil, although she backed Macron’s proposal to discuss the fires at the summit.
“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.”
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.
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. Merkel is in her last term 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.