As the world and the UK look to focus anew, the G7 summit of leading democracies may be the subject of an unusually high level of interest this year. Such summits are typically largely unmemorable and quickly forgotten, but that would be a considerable waste this year. Not least given the welcome return of the US to international cooperation under the Biden administration. Thus the UK hosted summit offers the opportunity of something of a global reset, but it will require a good deal more focus than governments have so far been able to provide.
Having been involved in preparations for the 2013 G8 summit, the last time the UK hosted this particular gathering, it does seem to me that the UK’s agenda is understandably a little behind this time round. Whilst the focus on climate change and building back better are clear, they are also rather high level and in the case of the first merely a prelude to a meeting later in the year in Glasgow. More specificity is needed, and there is no shortage of potential candidates.
The one closest to my heart is trade, where the legacy of the Trump administration and Covid-19 have left a desperate need for action. Globalisation is intellectually and politically unfashionable these days, but has been hugely important in the last year, in the development of vaccines and the increasing supply of medical grade products. The G7 must reaffirm the importance of global free trade and the rules based order, and commit to resolve the most urgent problems facing the WTO this year.
That isn’t going to be easy as the US and the EU have major differences over key issues, and where they are united is against free trade, in both talking of government action to reshore production possibly with state subsidies. The UK’s strained relationship with the EU will be problematic in trying to broker solutions, but together with Canada and Japan that is what we must try to achieve. That is going to mean stopping needless provocation of the EU such as refusing their Ambassador full status in London, but such is the price we need to choose for global relevance.
On a related subject the G7 must send a much stronger signal of support to developing countries over covid vaccine supplies. This is both a moral requirement but also a geo-political one for the G7 countries who are in danger of finding themselves outflanked by Chinese and Russian efforts with their own vaccines. Not to mention that the slow rollout of vaccines globally may increase the risk of new variants on which existing vaccines are less effective.
Building back better should also mean discussing what coordination is needed to respond to common challenges coming out of covid. Without necessarily expecting full answers subjects of discussion should include common approaches on issues such as border closures and vaccine passports, as well as the handling of new outbreaks. Where these issues are better handled by other organisations support from the G7 will still be most welcome. For example, it seems likely that many developed countries will want to look carefully at the impact of covid on young people at school, university, and early in the workforce, which the OECD would be well placed to consider in greater detail.
Climate change should of course be the main non-covid subject discussed at the G7, though the main focus for that will come later in the year. There is a need to define exactly how the G7 will help drive momentum for COP26, going beyond the commitment to net zero into the development of global solutions to aid the transition to a low carbon economy. Once again the G7 should have a particular duty to help developing economies with their own transitions.
The Prime Minister has spoken boldly of his desire to use the G7 Presidency, as is his way. But there is always the fear that he fails to match the big talk by driving action across government. The further concern is that the UK is still not really over our EU separation. Delivering some substantive outcomes from the G7 would be the perfect way for the PM to respond to critics of Global Britain.
If you would like to discuss this topic in further detail, then please do not hesitate to get in contact with David Henig.