This year’s G7 group meeting held in the British county of Cornwall had a massive symbolic and material importance to all those involved as well as to the rest of the world.
This was the first time the leaders of the world’s seven largest economies had met face-to-face since the Covid-19 outbreak in 2020. The symbolism was that business is going on as usual and that the world will survive its worst pandemic since World War II.
The meeting was also the first time that growing economic and political differences between different members of the group, such as between France and the UK, had been addressed. Quite a few tales emerged from this year’s meeting of the G7 leaders, including those below.
Post-Brexit issues still dominate Britain’s foreign policy, and French President Emmanuel Macron took a swipe at British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during the course of the G7 meeting as a result of Britain’s insistence on trading freely with Northern Ireland despite what had earlier been agreed with the EU.
The issue was raised in November 2020 when Johnson declared that British sausage products would reach Northern Ireland’s capital Belfast and nothing could stop them from doing so. It seemed a bizarre announcement in November, but there were reasons for it.
Following Britain’s decision to leave the EU customs union, border checks necessarily had to be applied on goods traded between the UK and the EU. These apply to chilled meat products, which are not allowed to enter EU markets through non-EU countries. Only frozen meat products are allowed, and these do not include mincemeat or sausages, presenting a dilemma for both sides.
The EU and Britain have agreed that Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, will preserve their free borders without having to introduce a so-called “hard border” to avoid further complications, calling this the Northern Ireland Protocol.
But Macron, the representative of a major EU country, insisted at the G7 meeting that the UK abide with EU regulations in order to avoid confrontations that could lead to an open trade war. Johnson then questioned Macron about how he would feel if the French courts stopped Toulouse sausages from being sent to Paris.
Macron said this was an unfair comparison because Toulouse and Paris are parts of the same country. The Republic of Ireland is an independent country, while Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, and thus post-Brexit laws apply there.
The spat between the French president and the British prime minister was the talk of the media for several days, and it overshadowed the optimistic atmosphere surrounding the G7 meeting. More importantly, it indicated that negative sentiments towards Brexit are still present among EU politicians, who believe that the UK’s decision to leave the EU was a destructive one despite efforts to uphold the unity of Europe after Brexit given the new economic challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic.
But Britain is not giving up easily on the matter, and despite the feud with the EU, whose leaders do not want to see the UK keeping any perks from EU membership, negotiations to settle it are ongoing. This week, the UK asked the EU to suspend an imminent ban on the sale of British sausages in Northern Ireland in order to pave the way for negotiations on an agreement that could save both sides from a likely trade war. The deadline of the grace period given to the UK is until the end of June, so the ongoing negotiations must come to an acceptable conclusion before then to avoid further complications.
The decades-old conflict between the US and Russia was the elephant in the room during the G7 meeting, and shortly after it there was the first meeting between newly elected US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin. During his presidential election campaign Biden had targeted Putin and had gone as far as to call him a “killer” and to vow to confront Russia and its president once he was elected president.
Fast forward seven months and Biden was sitting with Putin in a one-on-one meeting exchanging laughter, at least in front of the cameras. During the meeting, both presidents seemed to exchange cordial words, with Biden saying that “the tone of the entire meeting was good, positive. The bottom line is I told President Putin that we need to have some basic rules of the road that we can all abide by.” Putin described Biden as “a balanced and professional man, and it’s clear that he’s very experienced.”
But niceties aside, both presidents are aware that the statements made to the domestic media do not mean much when it comes to the volatile relations between the superpowers. Biden cannot afford to enter an open confrontation with Putin, who has the same sentiment. The two superpowers have set ground rules or rules of engagement over the years, and they will do their best not to break them. The growing power of China and other issues including the war on terrorism and the global economy will force both leaders to think twice before engaging in open confrontations that will not benefit either politically or economically.
Nevertheless, there are lingering issues that have to be sorted out to clear the air between the two superpowers. Among these are the growing number of cyber-attacks originating from Russian sources and targeting American companies such as Microsoft and American institutions such as USAID and some human-rights organisations. The Russian army’s mobilisation on the Ukrainian border, perceived as a threat by Ukrainian officials and NATO, irks the US administration and could cause a rapid deterioration in relations.
No G7 meeting is uneventful, and this year’s meeting was no exception. But there are already disappointments, especially concerning commitments towards the environment despite Britain’s pledge of GBP 500 million to help to save the oceans. Biden’s calls for large investments in the G7 economies to save them from the impacts of the recession caused by the coronavirus crisis were not clear in their impacts, despite some enthusiasm from the UK. The G7 communique was denounced by China because it included condemnation of China’s human-rights record concerning Uighur Muslims and the situation in Hong Kong.
The impacts of the recent G7 meeting with all its feuds and tales will be felt in the next few months, and it remains to be seen if the group will commit itself to more cooperation to save the global economy after the Covid-19 crisis and if ongoing military conflicts will be resolved in diplomatic ways.
The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly