The G7 Cornwall Summit – Glass half empty or half full?

Image: Coast of Cornwall

This year’s G7 summit concluded on 13 June with the release of a 25-page leaders’ communique containing 70 paragraphs.  And yet the summit has been criticised by global health and climate campaigners (including Gordon Brown, the UK’s former Prime Minister) for failing to rise to the unprecedented challenges the world now faces.  How fair is this criticism, and is there anything the UK summit hosts might have done differently to avoid it?

At the outset, we should celebrate the extraordinary contrast between the Cornwall summit and the experience of the G7 over the past four years while President Trump was in the White House. G7 summits had become increasingly difficult, with enormous energy spent by US allies on simply trying to preserve values and philosophies that had previously been taken for granted.  In 2018, President Trump disowned the leaders’ communique shortly after it had been signed. In 2020, the US G7 presidency did not host a formal Summit, even in virtual format, despite the unprecedented challenges facing the world.

By contrast, at Carbis Bay, with President Biden in the US seat, the G7 leaders clearly stated their support for multilateralism (unthinkable with President Trump) and their determination to reform and strengthen international organisations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and World Trade Organization (WTO).

Moreover, meetings under the UK Presidency had already overseen a wide range of specific commitments: on financial contributions to the global vaccine initiative, ACT-Accelerator (in February); on making the G7 countries net zero as soon as possible and by 2050 at the latest; on ending new direct government support for unabated international coal power generation by the end of 2021; on pushing for a minimum global corporation tax and a new distribution of taxing rights in the Global Tax Forum of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD); and on supporting a new allocation of 650bn Special Drawing Rights (SDR), the international reserve currency of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

And the final leaders’ statement contained an enormous amount of qualitative detail on steps the G7 would be taking to tackle global health threats and climate change as well as other less high profile but potentially very important steps to safeguard core G7 interests.

Crucially, though, the leaders’ declaration lacked concrete quantitative commitments going beyond those that had already been made. The main exception was the commitment to donate an additional 1 billion vaccine doses to the poorest countries (making a total of 2 billion doses the G7 has funded or donated since the pandemic began). This represents about 20% of total global need, assuming a 60% vaccination rate.  But the pace of delivery to those in need is painfully slow and ACT-A continues to face an $18bn funding gap.  And despite a renewed commitment to the $100bn per year of climate finance for developing countries enshrined in the Paris Agreement, there was no further detail on the specific contribution the G7 would make towards this.

But despite these apparent short comings, the overall results of the UK Presidency should be judged a respectable outcome – i.e. the glass is half full.   There are three reasons for this more positive view.

First, the UK Presidency should be judged on all the results delivered so far, not just on what has been freshly announced at the Summit.  The UK might have been wise to hold back more announcements for the leaders’ event (rather than allowing them to be announced at preceding ministerials), though internal politics often makes this difficult.  And it would also have been advisable to follow the rubric of “under promising and over delivering” rather than the reverse as seemed inevitable once Prime Minister Johnson had promised that the G7 would “vaccinate the world”.

Second, in response to the argument that the Summit failed to live up to the scale of the challenges the world now faces, the UK Presidency has argued that many of the key commitments will need to be delivered at events later this year – the G20, WTO ministerial and COP26 etc.  This is not on the face of it unreasonable.  And it is possible that there is more agreement privately within the G7 on what will need to be done than has been publicly revealed.  But if this is the case, they would have done well to follow their own example of global tax reform – that is put on the table now what they are prepared to do contingent on others acting, and invite others in the G20 and more widely to follow suit.  Such an approach would be consistent with the G7’s role today as a highly influential actor, but not the dominant force, in global economic decision making.

Third, there are a wide range of issues in the leaders’ statement, on which the G7 has set out steps which are specifically about protecting G7 interests and values in competition with other economic powers.  These range from cooperation in investment screening to enhancing digital governance based on western values to preventing carbon leakage through trade. However, these have been given little profile, probably because a majority of G7 members (though apparently not the US) felt it would be counterproductive vis-à-vis other goals (e.g. cooperation with China on tackling climate change) to give them more emphasis.  This means that this part of the UK Presidency’s achievement is underweighted in public perceptions.

But even if one takes the view that the glass is half empty, and the UK should have done more with the opportunity the G7 Presidency offered, the Summit does clearly demonstrate once more the importance of the G7, not as the dominant economic decision maker it was when first founded more than forty years ago, but as a highly influential group for coming up with global solutions to global problems and safeguarding western interests and values. Next year’s German G7 Presidency will have a very full agenda.

Creon Butler is Research Director, Trade, Investment and New Governance Models, and Director, Global Economy and Finance Programme at Chatham House.

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