/Macron’s G7 descends into summit of spin

Macron’s G7 descends into summit of spin

BIARRITZ, France — It’s the seaside summit of seven truths.

Gathered for their annual pow-wow in the French coastal city of Biarritz this weekend, leaders of the G7 club of rich democracies agreed that Russia should not be invited back into the fold. Or maybe they didn’t.

The leaders also decided that their host, French President Emmanuel Macron, would issue a joint statement to Iran on their behalf and pursue discussions to de-escalate tensions. Or actually, they didn’t. U.S. President Donald Trump told perplexed reporters that each G7 country would pursue its own dialogue with Tehran.

And as the political titans of the industrialized world chit-chatted about the fragile global economy, amid the breeze blowing in off the Bay of Biscay, apparently the prospects for a deal on Brexit somehow magically improved. Or perhaps that was just a bit of wishful thinking — if not outright distortion — by new U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson. EU officials said after a meeting between Johnson and European Council President Donald Tusk that absolutely nothing had changed.

Welcome to big-league global diplomacy in 2019 — where everything is at stake and yet nothing is certain and no one can be trusted, at least not without extensive corroboration. And that’s largely down to Trump and Macron.

“Clearly there was no consensus whatsoever, not even on the overall objective” — Anonymous EU official

Macron, the ambitious first-term president who not so long ago was a staffer helping prepare the G7 summit and draft the final communiqué, thought he had hit upon a brilliant strategy to prevent Trump from upending the leaders’ written conclusions — by simply declaring in advance that there wouldn’t be any this year.

Without a communiqué, there would be no way for Trump to sign on to a statement and then torpedo it minutes later, as he did after last year’s G7 leaders’ summit in Quebec, Canada. But Macron quickly discovered that no communiqué also means no carefully-negotiated written record of what leaders had actually agreed, no solid commitment to any particular course of action. Nothing to prove that, in fact, the leaders of the free world are still able to reach consensus on how to manage tough problems.

That meant each leader was free to present their version of what had been agreed, without anything in black and white to contradict them. In fact, there were sometimes even more versions of the truth than leaders at the G7 — as some changed their stories as the day wore on.

The problem was immediately apparent on Sunday after the French government told reporters that the leaders — of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union — had agreed during dinner at a lighthouse on Saturday that it was far too soon for Russia to be invited to join their exclusive club. According to the Élysée Palace, the leaders agreed that Russia had not taken sufficient steps to end its military meddling in eastern Ukraine.

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Council President Donald Tusk, France’s President Emmanuel Macron, Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US President Donald Trump meet for a working discussion at the G7 in Biarritz, France on August 25, 2019 | Pool photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Johnson, in particular, spoke out forcefully, reminding his colleagues of the attempted murder, in Salisbury, England, of the former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal — an attack using a chemical weapon that the West has blamed on the Kremlin. Asked about the leaders’ discussion, British officials confirmed the French view.

But Trump, when asked if he supported the stance of keeping Russia out, said no such decision had been taken. And as the host of next year’s G7 summit in the United States, it will be largely up to Trump to decide who is invited to attend (even if he cannot fully restore Russia’s membership rights).

“Clearly there was no consensus whatsoever, not even on the overall objective,” said an EU official briefed on the discussion. Trump reiterated his desire to bring the Russians back into the club. “There was very strong opposition to this idea from the Europeans, including President Tusk.”

Consensus conundrum

Such disagreements are all the more thorny in the G7 because there is no mechanism to force a decision. “The way the G7 functions is by unanimity,” the EU official said. “You don’t have votes in the G7. You need to have consensus.”

Asked if Putin would be a guest at next year’s summit, Trump played coy. “I don’t know. It’s certainly possible,” Trump teased, adding that he had heard from “a number of people who would like to see Russia” readmitted. But he declined to name specific leaders. “I don’t think it’s necessary,” Trump said.

Macron said the dinner conversation was exactly what he wanted — a forum where the decision-makers could freely and directly engage on substantive topics.  “We had a conversation that was very useful, in the spirit of what the G7 should be, an informal discussion, that is free and intense,” he told reporters.

“We’ll do our own outreach … but we can’t stop others from their outreach. If they want to talk, they can talk” — U.S. President Donald Trump

But free and intense hardly assures that the decision-makers take decisions or make concrete progress.

On Iran, Trump similarly contradicted Macron’s own summary of what leaders had agreed. The French president said he was authorized by fellow leaders to issue a statement to Iran and to pursue discussions aimed at preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and at reducing the tensions that have flared since Trump unilaterally pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

“We’ll do our own outreach … but we can’t stop others from their outreach,” Trump said. “If they want to talk, they can talk.”

But the Trump administration also engaged in some over-reaching of its own, with American officials in Biarritz claiming that the other leaders all agreed Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” against Iran was working and that they supported it.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The Europeans remain firmly committed to the Iran nuclear deal and have been scrambling for ways to save it.

Macron tried to walk a tightrope, saying Trump’s renewed sanctions had served a purpose, though the Europeans have always insisted U.S. withdrawal from the deal was a mistake. “Had the Europeans not been there to stay in the JCPOA, Iran would have left it so it was useful that some remain in it,” Macron told reporters. “Had there not been a sanctions policy and pressure, there might be less Iranian will to move on other issues.”

Macron made an effort to avoid any major logjams with Trump at the G7  | Andrew Harnik/AFP via Getty Images

It’s still not clear that Tehran or Washington have any will to move on anything at this point.

That the G7 powers this year were acting more in their own individual interests than collectively was further illustrated on Sunday afternoon, as Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe upstaged the other participants by announcing a landmark trade deal; and France unexpectedly announced the arrival of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif for a meeting with his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian.

French officials said they had given the Americans a 24-hour heads-up, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters she left dinner Saturday with no idea Zarif had been invited to Biarritz.

French and Iranian officials quickly tamped down speculation that Zarif might meet with Trump — a potentially remarkable step given the deep enmity between Iran and the U.S.

But merely bringing the Iranian foreign minister to the same city as Trump and other leaders demonstrated how intensely Macron is hoping to foster dialogue that could bring Tehran back into compliance with the nuclear deal, and to ease fears of a potential war.

Difficult dinner

French officials, eager to portray their summit as a success, have presented perhaps the most overall optimistic picture — but were quickly forced to backpedal as other delegations rebuffed their accounts, or offered very different assessments. Perhaps the starkest divide was on the assessments of Saturday night’s dinner.

“Tense,” the EU official said, describing the meal. “It was not an easy discussion at all.”

Macron said he agreed with Trump that each country “will continue each acting in their own role.”

The opening conversation about how to respond to the fires burning in the Amazon rain forest was perhaps the easiest part of the night, officials said, with leaders generally in agreement on trying to help Brazil put out the blazes. That was something of a surprise, as the fires were the subject of fierce debate in the run-up to the summit.

There was consensus to reach out to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, including a phone call from Merkel, in a way that he would not find intimidating or accusatory.

But from there on, there was little common ground. Trump had no interest in arguments by the European leaders that Russia did not share Western liberal democratic values and therefore should continue to be shunned, officials said. He countered that there was little point discussing Iran, Syria or other global crises without President Vladimir Putin at the table, given Russia’s military and geopolitical influence.

The differences continued to play out in meetings on Sunday, even as French officials began calibrating, with Macron ultimately conceding that Trump was at least partially correct about how communication would be handled with Iran.

Macron said he agreed with Trump that each country “will continue each acting in their own role.”

“Evidently when I speak, I speak in the name of France,” he said.

Despite his contradictions of fellow leaders, Trump seemed even more intent on countering press accounts that he is increasingly isolated on the world stage and that his relations with historic U.S. allies are deeply strained.

On Twitter, the president complained of the “fake and disgusting news.” However, it was Trump’s own officials who railed against Macron’s handling of the summit almost as soon as they arrived in Biarritz, with one of them accusing the French president of trying to split the G7.

Macron, briefing reporters Sunday on the summit so far, expressed confidence that leaders were engaging in productive discussions. Asked if Trump was too volatile and unpredictable, Macron said that he was working effectively with the American on a one-on-one basis.

Noting their two-hour lunch together on Saturday, shortly after Trump’s arrival in Biarritz, which was followed by a leaders-only dinner with no advisers or staff, Macron said: “I think it’s this direct dialogue that will really allow us to move forward effectively. The discussion last night was extremely concrete and allowed us to go forward, I am confident I know what his objectives are. He is very clear and he is someone who does what he told his voters he would do.”

But even Macron seemed to recognize the peril of having no written account of the summit sessions.

“What we need to collectively avoid,” he said, “is to have one piece of spin reacting to another.”

Charlie Cooper, Gabby Orr and Hans von der Burchard contributed reporting.

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