Public Affairs & Government Relations

FTI Consulting Public Affairs Snapshot – G7 2021: Cornwall welcomes the World

In an indication that the world is starting to look beyond Covid, the UK took centre stage this weekend as Boris Johnson hosted his G7 counterparts on the sunny coast of Cornwall. However, while the smiles of leaders beamed as brightly as the skies, darker clouds gathered at home and overseas, as delay to the relaxation of lockdowns became apparent and tensions were once again stoked by Brexit.

Britain welcomes back the world

The first significant gathering of world leaders since the Covid pandemic gripped the world, the 2021 summit of G7 leaders was supposed to be the moment marking the transition from health crisis to economic recovery. While such calls might still be premature, there was nevertheless a welcome sense of normality – at least in political terms – as leaders from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States gathered to pose for the photocalls.

Old allies, new challenges

The first of two big moments for Global Britain this year – alongside the UN Conference on Climate Change in Glasgow in November – Johnson is eager to send a message to the world that EU withdrawal does not mean the UK’s retreat on the world stage. With his trademark optimism his message was that post-Brexit Britain can trailblaze on the most pressing issues facing the world today.

Of course, expectations in the lead up to such summits are invariably – and often unreasonably – high, made more so in this case by the diplomatic paucity enforced by the pandemic. But seven nations from the 193 represented at the UN cannot alone hope to fix the world’s problems alone, even taking account the European Commission’s seat at the table and the UK’s special invitees for 2021, Australia, India, South Africa, and South Korea.

Yet, as the grouping of the preeminent ‘western’ nations it is a crucible in which attitudes and commitments forge behaviours elsewhere. If the old East/West frontier has reopened in recent years, China and Russia resolutely on the opposing team, here were old allies repivoting to 21st Century priorities.

Communique, OK?

It is the shared communique that emerges at the conclusion of such a summit against which success is measured. Yet such essays, drafted in committee, are invariably indistinct in detail and vague in output, the product of a diplomatic bandwagon forced to focus more on accommodating agreement than the implications of whatever might actually be agreed upon.

As hosts, the UK Government’s particular influence was only too evident in the collective promise to ‘build back better’ to beat Covid; a noble sentiment perhaps, but one found even more wanting in practical intent than it is when quoted by Johnson in a national sense.

Definitive commitments thus remained elusive, promises instead hung on six thematic propositions; ending the pandemic, reinvigorating economies, securing prosperity, protecting the planet, strengthening partnerships and – perhaps most nebulous of all – embracing values. Advocates might champion the united front, though cries of too-little-too-late were as audible as they were predictable.

Vaccinating the world

More than magnanimity, G7 leaders recognise that their own security and prosperity depends on the ability of poorer nations to vaccinate, the creed being that ‘nobody is safe until everyone is safe’. While the G7 expect to inoculate the majority of citizens this year, developing countries – on current trends – will be waiting until well into 2023.

Such circumstances not only serve to accentuate existing inequalities across the globe. There is also growing alarm amongst democratic nations of the implications of the vaccine diplomacy of Russia and China.

Thus it was with some surprise that the G7 commitment to provide 1 billion doses over the next year fell so far short of what will ultimately be needed in total.

The carbon factor

Even as the pandemic raged, it was evident that climate change would be top billing at this summit. Commitments to Carbon Net Zero straddle both the international and domestic components of the Government’s agenda and whilst the most headline-grabbing commitments will have to wait until this autumn, the Prime Minister was anxious to demonstrate progress.

The leaders recommitted to net zero by 2050 and pledged to halve emissions over the two decades to 2030, increasing climate finance over the coming four years. There was also a commitment to protect at least 30% of land and oceans by the end of this decade.

And yet, again, such commitments appear modest in scope and put pressure on the richest nations to deliver a more expansive set of agreements in Glasgow in November.

Taxing times for big tech

The ability of Silicon Valley titans to avoid paying tax in the country where a sale is made has attracted the ire of public and Governments around the world. Assiduously rejected by Trump, Joe Biden’s election has shifted this debate, crystallising around much previewed new principles compelling companies to pay more tax in the countries where they do business and a global minimum corporate tax rate of 15%.

Nevertheless, such commitments have a long way to go before they become policy, and it appears likely that many countries that rely on competitive rates of taxation will resist following suit. It also remains possible that a future G7 government may decide that it is no longer in the country’s interests to keep to this agreement.

Despite these potential pitfalls, of all the commitments emerging from this summit, this is likely to have the widest-ranging impact on the way businesses operate globally.

Carrot or stick with China?

The growing desire within the G7 to coordinate the activity of liberal democracies in an effort to counter Chinese influence was an underlying theme throughout the summit. Whilst Biden was at pains to use measured language, his administration is making a concerted effort to bring democratic leaders together to compete more effectively with Beijing.

Calls for coordinated action on human rights abuses in Xinjiang were complemented by attempts to persuade other democratic leaders to offer financing to developing countries in order to compete directly with similar Chinese initiatives.

Nevertheless, the wording in the communique reflects reticence on the part of some G7 nations (in particular Germany) to overtly criticise a country on which they rely on economically. Whilst the mood is shifting, liberal democracies remain some way from any consensus.

Shuttle diplomacy returns

Five months on from his inauguration, Biden’s arrival in the UK was the first occasion of him stepping onto foreign soil as President. The usual British angst surrounding how the transition from one administration to the next might impact on the special relationship no doubt made the opportunity to be the first to host Biden a welcome one in Downing Street, even if it was more due to circumstance than meaning.

The two leaders emerged from their pre-summit bilateral meeting sending all the right effusive messages that were so apparently lacking during Trump’s erratic tenure. On issues ranging from multilateralism to collective defence and international trade, normal business was largely resumed after a four-year hiatus.

While it seems unlikely that Johnson and Biden will ever be ideological bedfellows, there will be much relief that it can yet prove to be a cordial, even productive, relationship. If only it wasn’t for Brexit…

Eyes on the Irish border

Johnson’s smiles as he elbow-bumped with the President hid the dismay over the US’s pre-summit démarche, censuring Johnson for inflaming tensions in Northern Ireland over Brexit and potentially putting the Good Friday peace agreement in jeopardy. A démarche – in diplomatic terms akin to a formal reprimand – is a rare thing to be exchanged between allies and it will have stung.

That two of the leaders also present in Cornwall – French President Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel – find this issue enduringly high on their to-do list ensured that the US intervention would not pass without mention. Sure enough, bolstered by the move from Washington, Macron headed into the summit in belligerent mood, insisting that there was nothing at all in the Northern Ireland Protocol that was renegotiable.

Johnson’s response? The reiteration of his threat to unilaterally suspend its operation, made to look all the more petulant in light of the US rebuke. Of course, this is not a new problem, nor the one that leaders arrived in Cornwall to resolve, but the persistent impasse ensured that the language of unity woven throughout the resulting communique cannot avoid being infected with an air of disingenuity.

Building a legacy

Given that the world expects so much from such summits, perhaps we can only ever be disappointed. International diplomacy is difficult and competing agendas make reaching any agreement challenging, let alone the instigation of meaningful outcomes. And yet the 2021 G7 already feels like a missed opportunity on all of the key issues; vaccines, climate, economics and security.

Johnson knows he has an opportunity on the international stage to secure his legacy in Glasgow in November, but he’ll need his ministers and diplomats to work harder at hosting duties if meaningful outcomes are to be achieved.

 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of FTI Consulting, its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates, or its other professionals.

©2021 FTI Consulting, Inc. All rights reserved. www.fticonsulting.com

 

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