This Is Not Business As Usual: The 2017 G20 Summit

Reuters/A. Schmidt

The 2017 G20 Summit kicked off earlier today in Hamburg, Germany. Heads of state from the world’s leading economies are convening at Hamburg Messe, the city’s exhibition and trade fair center, on July 7-8 to discuss global priorities. Beyond the usual focus on economic, financial, climate, trade, employment, and development issues, G20 leaders are also expected to address a variety of other issues of global significance such as migration and refugee flows, and counter-terrorism.

This year’s summit, however, is not business as usual. It seemed clear in the buildup to the summit that this year would have a distinct feel from those of recent years, and that is playing out now. For starters, Germany chose Hamburg, its second largest city and one with a history of left-wing activism, to host the summit whereas most summits are typically held in more remote and idyllic settings. As a result, this year’s summit has thus far been accompanied by a wide range of demonstrations, protests, and clashes between protestors and police. Aside from the summit’s location in an inner-city setting, another factor in the large showing of protestors is the presence of politically divisive figures such as Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Yet, it’s not just external activism from civil society groups that is contributing to a feeling that the 2017 summit is shaping up to be an outlier from previous years. Dynamics within, and between, the G20 countries are also pointing to less-than-normal summit. The G20, a group historically defined by a commitment to economic liberalism, is meeting amid a global backdrop of rising nationalism and skepticism surrounding globalization and free trade. Furthermore, the decision by President Donald Trump to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement has been a source of tension between him and a number of G20 leaders, which will surely carry over to the global meeting. It is these two issues – free trade and climate change – that have created more friction ahead of the summit than any others.

Free Trade

Ever since 2008, when the G20 summit was elevated to the level of heads of state, the G20 has championed free trade. G20 leaders agreed at the 2008 Washington Summit to refrain from imposing any new barriers to trade and investment for a year, and that provision has been extended at every subsequent summit. This year, however, there is no unanimity among G20 countries surrounding the provision as during previous years. In March, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin would not explicitly commit to reaffirming past commitments to resist protectionism. For many, this was a signal that the Trump administration intended to follow through on its commitment to put “America First”.

This, in turn, seemed to spur G20 countries to make their own statement on free trade. On the eve of the summit, the European Union and Japan, two economies that account for a third of global GDP, agreed in principle to a free trade deal that will create the world’s biggest open economic area. Beyond the trade deal, there is an accompanying partnership agreement in which both sides commit to greater cooperation on issues like climate change and cybercrime. The announcement of the deal, which has been in the works for four years, on the eve of the summit was undoubtedly a pointed challenge to Donald Trump and other free trade skeptics. Indeed, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe remarked that the deal was “a strong message to the world”, and that both the EU and Japan were demonstrating their “strong political will to fly the flag for free trade against a shift toward protectionism.”

Climate Change

At the Paris climate conference (COP21) in December 2015, representatives from 195 countries agreed to the Paris Climate Agreement, a landmark pact to adopt green energy sources, cut down on climate change emissions, and combat the rise of global temperature. The agreement was the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate deal. Last month, however, President Trump pulled the United States out of the agreement, calling it “draconian” in a speech announcing the withdrawal.

The decision to withdraw from the agreement was immediately met with criticism from countries and civil society alike. Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Emmanuel Macron, and Italy’s Paolo Gentiloni immediately issued a joint statement saying the Paris accord was “irreversible” and could not be renegotiated. Leaders of the BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, and China – called on the G20 to push for implementation of the agreement despite the U.S. withdrawal. Other G20 leaders expressed their disappointment with the decision to Trump privately, including Canada’s Justin Trudeau and the UK’s Theresa May, who said she would raise the issue with Trump at the summit. In spite of the Trump’s decision, or perhaps because of it, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was vocal in the days before the summit that Germany, as the summit host, would make climate change a focus of the summit and use it to defend the Paris agreement. In Hamburg, Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the agreement will essentially pit him against every other G20 country at the summit this weekend. While it remains to be seen what climate-related messaging emerges from the summit, it is nearly guaranteed to lack unanimity between G20 countries.

What to expect

Ultimately, it’s too early to predict what outcomes will emerge from the summit, but all signs seem to indicate that this year will be marked by a greater level of disagreement, even on issues that have historically been commonly agreed upon in G20 discussions. The G20 leaders’ communiqué, once it is released, will offer a more complete picture of what was accomplished at the summit, and what issues have fallen by the wayside.

Stay tuned, as we will write more about the summit next week, after it wraps up and the G20 leaders’ communiqué is released.

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