Scaling the summit

Merkel hopes to muddle through ‘contentious’ G7 summit

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Why can't we all just smile a little? Source: Reuters

Chancellor Angela Merkel devoted the lion’s share of her first ever question period in parliament this week to the G7 summit, voicing the trepidation that European leaders feel over differences with the United States. She said discussions were likely to be “contentious,” but insisted nonetheless that the summit will be useful to keep open channels of communication.

Maybe. Maybe not. For one thing, the climate is so frosty these days that President Donald Trump considered not even attending, the Washington Post reported. He has so many differences of opinion with other leaders and does not want to be lectured by them. Besides, he sees this summit in a hard-to-reach spot in Quebec as a distraction from next week’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The White House has denied the reports and says he is still planning to fly in later Friday.

Whether or not Mr. Trump attends, the very suggestion that he might not poses the question whether these meetings have outlived their usefulness. What began more than 40 years ago essentially as a response to the OPEC oil crisis has become a somewhat atrophied artifact of another era. Bland communiqués are written ahead of time and meetings are held in obscure locations to make security easier. Even protesters have largely stopped taking the meetings seriously.

“It doesn’t make sense to arbitrarily plaster over differences. ”

Angela Merkel, German chancellor

Just how meaningful the summit would be without the participation of the world’s biggest economy, or with its leader at odds with the other summiteers, is a question that was posed to Ms. Merkel in parliament this week. Enrico Komning, a deputy from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which leads the opposition to the chancellor’s grand coalition government, asked whether the meeting made any sense after every member of her government had continually and publicly discredited the US president. In view of this prejudice, was there any chance of a meaningful joint communiqué? And, by the way, how can you possibly justify the reported $400 million spent on security for the summit?

In her unruffled way, Ms. Merkel responded that there can be differences of opinion among democracies, and these must be openly acknowledged. “It doesn’t make sense to arbitrarily plaster over differences,” she said, but added that it is precisely in such a situation that the lines of communication must be kept open and the art of persuasion practiced.

Is anybody listening? At last year’s summit in Taormina, Sicily – a place as out of the way as this year’s site in La Malbaie, Quebec – fewer than half the expected 3,500 protesters showed up. Police expect protests in Quebec to be equally “moderate,” a far cry from the troubles seen at the larger G20 summit in Hamburg last July. What they are protesting in general is the system of economic dominance enshrined in the so-called Washington Consensus, a neoliberal philosophy that has been enforced by the G7 and other multilateral groupings.

But with the arrival of a populist president in the United States, and now a populist government in Italy, this cozy system may be undermined from within. Italy and the US – along with Germany, France, Britain, and Japan – have belonged to the group of the world’s biggest free-market economies since its inception in 1975. Canada joined the following year to make it the G7. That was a long time ago.

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No, ah, sorry, the Manoir Richelieu is fully booked this weekend. Source: Reuters

With little hope of meaningful compromise, Ms. Merkel suggested that a summary from the host might be a better message than a communiqué so bland that everyone could sign it. However, that host, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, also had some harsh words regarding Mr. Trump and his imposition of penalty tariffs on steel and aluminum.

“Absurd,” “unacceptable” and “insulting” were among the adjectives chosen by Mr. Trudeau at a recent press conference, putting him right in line with all those German cabinet members who spoke ill of the US president. Like Mexico and the European Union, Canada is ready to slap retaliatory tariffs on US products.

French President Emmanuel Macron also took a more combative line. Rather than a bland communiqué, he suggested the six nations sign a statement that reflected their own values as representatives of “an economic market which has the weight of history behind it and which is now a true international force.” Donald Trump characteristically hit back, calling Mr. Trudeau “indignant” and accusing both leaders of “charging the US massive tariffs” and creating “non-monetary barriers.”

Not very promising language for reaching compromise. If leaders really want to keep the G7 alive, then Ms. Merkel’s muddle-through strategy might be the better choice. But is it really worth saving? A dramatic confrontation may or may not mean the end of the G7 summits, but the world, really, would hardly miss this relic from a bygone era.

Darrell Delamaide is a writer and editor for Handelsblatt Global in Washington, DC. To contact the author: d.delamaide@extern.handelsblatt.com.

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