summit communique

G20 Agrees to Disagree

French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Donald Trump confer at the first working session of the G20 meeting in Hamburg. Source: REUTERS

Nearly all G20 leaders agree on the need for free and fair trade, but some differences of opinion between US President Donald Trump and the other 19 leaders meant that drafting the summit’s final communique proved a major struggle.

“On the issue of trade, virtually everyone believes we need free but also fair trade,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Friday night, at the end of the first day of the G20’s Hamburg summit. “However, I can predict that as far as trade is concerned in the communique, the sherpas have a lot of work ahead of them tonight.”

That hard work had finally paid off by Saturday afternoon. World leaders eventually agreed to put out a common statement, albeit one that largely papered over differences on trade and included some major caveats on climate change, where the sides essentially laid out their differences rather than speaking with one voice.

The talks occurred amid a spate of violent protests in parts of Hamburg that authorities described as a “new dimension” of aggression against police forces. Shops, some of which had been looted, were closed in parts of the northern port city on Saturday.

“Solutions can only be found if we are ready for compromise ... but without – and I stress this – bending too much.”

Angela Merkel, German chancellor

The fact that there was a final statement at all can be counted as a success for Chancellor Merkel, who faced pressure at home as she gears up for a parliamentary election in September. The summit included not only Mr. Trump but Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, all of whom have wildly diverging national interests.

Ms. Merkel, who is the most experienced leader when it comes to the number of visited summits (see graphic below), faced the daunting task of steering the G20 toward a consensus on trade, climate change and migration – all issues that have become more contentious since Mr. Trump entered the White House six months ago, promising an “America First” approach.

“We all know the big global challenges and we know that time is short,” Ms. Merkel told fellow Group of 20 leaders at the start of the meetings. “Solutions can only be found if we are ready for compromise and move toward each other, but without – and I stress this – bending too much, because of course we can also state clearly when there are differences.”

Ms. Merkel’s rough relationship with Mr Trump earlier this year led her to suggest Europe would need to rely less on the United States and more on itself. By Saturday, she had modified that slightly: Europeans “needed to take our fate into our own hands,” but in reference to the US added “we can achieve more here together than we can alone.”

07 Experts meet Freshmen-01

Envoys have been working for weeks to bridge their differences. Eventually, the G20 leaders succeeded in issuing two statements. The first, on Friday, was on the easier topic of countering terrorism, its financing and propaganda. “We, the leaders of the G20, strongly condemn all terrorist attacks worldwide and stand united and firm in the fight against terrorism and its financing,” the statement begins. In order to address the threat of returning foreign terrorist fighters from conflict zones such as Iraq and Syria, the G20 agreed to “facilitate swift and targeted exchanges of information between intelligence and law enforcement and judicial authorities.”

Other areas proved far more challenging to reach a deal. But by Saturday afternoon, there was a statement ready on the more thorny topics of climate change and free trade. Many of the final tweaks in language smacked of a fudge that essentially allows each country to follow its own path, while the biggest differences were not so much papered over as specifically highlighted in the final communique.

Hamburg's interior minister called the violence "frightening."

The communique sticks with language about the Paris climate accord being “irreversible,” but removes a reference from an earlier version to a “global approach” that some countries felt suggested there was a parallel track to Paris. In the end, 19 countries recommitted to implementing the Paris deal. The statement “took note” of the US decision to withdraw.

Success, at least on climate change, was measured in small steps. While she “deplored” the US decision to leave the Paris accord, Ms. Merkel noted that Mr. Trump had at least attended the first part of the leaders’ discussion on climate policy Friday, despite his differences from other states in this area, even taking the floor. This had not been a given.

On trade, compromise language included a commitment to fighting protectionism and “unfair trade practices.” But in a concession to the United States, leaders at the same time recognized the role of “legitimate trade defense instruments” to protect domestic markets.

Another success for Ms. Merkel was keeping the United States in the fold on financial regulation. The final statement said the leaders “remain committed to the finalization and timely, full and consistent implementation of the agreed G20 financial sector reform agenda.” With Mr. Trump’s pledges to roll back financial regulation back home, this too was not a given.

Despite the watered-down statement, Ms. Merkel will likely stand accused by a chorus of critics for what happened outside the venue than what happened inside. As the leaders met, police battled to cope with thousands of anti-capitalist protesters who looted shops and set fire to cars, rubbish bins and wooden pallets. More than 200 police were injured, at least 14 people arrested and another 63 people detained. Hamburg’s interior minister called the violence “frightening.” Ms. Merkel has pledged financial aid.

Handelsblatt correspondents in Berlin and Hamburg contributed to this report, including Christopher Cermak, Daniel Tost, Martin Greive, Torsten Riecke, Jan Hildebrand and Thomas Sigmund. To contact the authors:

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