World leaders are gathering for the G7 summit in Cornwall this week. Here we look at the key themes that will dominate their meeting and what might constitute a successful outcome from discussions:
One of Joe Biden’s key aims is a show of western solidarity before his forthcoming meeting with Vladimir Putin in Geneva. The US president wrote in the Washington Post that he was aiming to “rally the world’s democracies” and perform a major reset of foreign policy after the unpredictability of his predecessor Donald Trump, who wavered on commitment to Nato and flirted with autocrats including the Russian leader.
G7 foreign ministers, after meeting last month to prepare the ground, said they were “deeply concerned” about “the negative pattern of Russia’s irresponsible and destabilising behaviour”. After landing in the UK on Wednesday night, Biden told US troops at an airbase in Suffolk: “We are going to make it clear that the US is back and democracies of the world are standing together to tackle the toughest challenges and the issues that matter most to our future.”
Key critics of the G7 often bring up China’s absence as a reason why the coterie of world leaders is diminishing in influence. Yet the superpower will be a major subject on the agenda, shown by the invitation to Australia, South Korea and India to attend as guests. Beijing’s reach and influence is a key issue for them. Biden’s agenda is to persuade European nations to take the threat of China’s sway on democracies more seriously, as Chinese investment in infrastructure and businesses pours into Europe.
Boris Johnson, whose recent defence and security review promised a renewed “Indo-Pacific tilt”, is also keen to find ways of cooperating to dilute Beijing’s influence.
Johnson has announced that he would like to see the entire world vaccinated by the end of 2022, but offered scant detail about how the UK would like that to happen. With most G7 countries now well on the way to fully vaccinating their adult populations, and the UK itself having secured millions of excess doses, the world is looking to the G7 for a detailed, funded plan.
More than 200 former world leaders and foreign ministers including two former UK prime ministers, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, wrote to G7 leaders earlier this week, urging them to agree to meet two-thirds of the £46.6bn cost of expanding vaccinations throughout low-income countries. An agreement to do so would be a tangible legacy from the Cornwall summit.
In what many saw as a hopeful sign of the return of multilateralism, G7 finance ministers signed a historic agreement in London last week, laying the groundwork for a tougher global tax regime. The new system is aimed at allowing governments to levy tax on the most profitable firms wherever they earn revenue, instead of allowing multinationals to play one jurisdiction off against another; and it sets a minimum rate of 15%.
Campaigners say the 15% rate is too low – Biden had proposed 21%. There are also concerns about how the resulting revenue would be divided between the G7 and developing countries, and how long it might take to implement. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is also reportedly already seeking an exemption from the new regime for City firms. But G7 leaders are nevertheless likely to hail the agreement as the start of a new era of cooperation.
Ever since he was foreign secretary, Johnson has highlighted the importance of girls’ education, calling it a “Swiss army knife” that helps to solve a range of other development issues. It will feature this weekend too, but anti-poverty campaigners accuse the prime minister of hypocrisy, given his recent controversial decision to ditch – temporarily, the government insists – the target of spending 0.7% of national income on aid.
Labour has said it would like to see Johnson restate his commitment to the 0.7% target – but that appears highly unlikely. Instead the UK may press other nations to pledge to help boost girls’ schooling.
Discussions on the climate emergency will be more straightforward than in recent years for one, very basic reason: no Trump. One of Biden’s very first acts as president was to rejoin the Paris climate agreement, and Cornwall will not be dominated by the almost impossible earlier conundrum of achieving concrete results without alienating Trump’s administration.
“Easier than Trump” is, however, a low bar, and while climate action is billed as one of the central thrusts of this G7 summit, the danger is that with issues such as Covid, vaccines and corporation tax dominating, the only outcome is yet more bland words on an end-of-summit communique.
There are several climate-based protests planned to coincide with the summit, aimed at focusing the minds of leaders, but almost certainly kept at such a distance from the event that they can and will be ignored.
Nonetheless, for Johnson the stakes are relatively high, if largely in the medium term. The crucial Cop26 climate summit is being held in Glasgow in November, and the prime minister will want to build up a head of global policy steam moving towards this. As such, he will be under pressure to emerge from this weekend with something definite and agreed in policy terms, not just yet another restatement of the need to do something.
Johnson doesn’t want Brexit to be anywhere near the G7. In a recent profile for Atlantic magazine the prime minister insisted: “We’ve sucked that lemon dry.” But the Brexit minister, Lord Frost, will now travel to Cornwall, in a sign that No 10 has conceded it will be impossible to avoid the issue.
On Wednesday Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan reiterated the president’s “deep” concerns about the simmering row over the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, warning about the risks of imperilling the peace process. Johnson is likely to come under intense pressure to make concessions, but he gave the pugnacious Frost his staunch backing on Wednesday, jokingly calling him “the greatest Frost since the Great Frost of 1709”.