The 45th annual Group of Seven, held on 24-26 August 2019, in Biarritz, France, was held at a critical moment in the liberal, international order. The climate change crisis has reached a point of no-return; the global political landscape is witnessing a surge in geopolitical tensions; growing populism; cycles of global economic slowdown; protectionism and mounting threats to democracy, exacerbated by discontent with the effects of globalization and widening horizontal and vertical inequalities across and within countries.
Looking back at the 2018 Charlevoix Summit in Canada, which ended in acrimony after US President Donald Trump staged a dramatic walk-out and refused to sign the final communiqué, there were concerns that the 2019 Summit would suffer a similar fate, prompting French President Emmanuel Macron to break with G7 tradition by avoiding a joint communiqué, usually published at the end of proceedings and outlining outcomes agreed by leaders. Taken as a tacit move to appease President Trump and avoid antagonising the US, this year’s G7 Summit undoubtedly reflected the deep divisions within the forum of the world’s most industrialised democracies, which also represent 40% of the global economy and 10% of the world’s population. Consensus was certainly a scarce currency given the cracks evident along a number of faultlines: Italy’s squabbling with France and the EU over budget and migration issues, the UK’s imminent, no-deal Brexit from the EU, Germany’s spat with its eastern neighbours over energy security in light of the nearly completed Nord Stream 2 pipeline delivering Russian gas to western Europe and Japan’s trade tiff with South Korea.
The Biarritz summit was centred on the theme of fighting inequalities, specifically promoting equality of opportunity through gender equality, access to education and high quality health services. The second priority is environmental equality emphasizing climate finance, a fair ecological transition and the protection of oceans and biodiversity. Additional priorities included harnessing the opportunities of the digital economy and artificial intelligence, promoting peace and security by addressing security threats and terrorism, and promoting fair and equitable trade, tax and development policies. The French presidency also revitalised the format of the G7 by inviting leaders of like-minded democracies from other regions who stood for the promotion of multilateral world order and collective solutions to the challenges of a globalised, digital era. Invited participants included leaders of India, South Africa, Australia and Chile, all with significant influence in their respective regions. The other set of strategic invitees included representatives of civil society such as the G7 Gender Advisory Council and the G7 engagement groups such as Women7, Youth7, Business7, Labour7 and Think tanks7, among others.
Pertinent to the G7-Africa Partnership, built over decades-long engagement since the 2002 Kananaskis summit, the 2019 Biarritz Summit sought to revitalize the G7 alliance with Africa, positioning the continent as an equal and pivotal partner in the fight against inequalities, and the successful implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the African Union Agenda 2063. As part of this re-oriented approach to the partnership with Africa, the G7 French presidency invited six strategic partners chairing key institutions in 2019 namely Burkina Faso (Chair of the G5 Sahel); Egypt (AU Chair); Senegal ( Chair of the Heads of State and Government Orientation Committee of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD, the AU Development Agency); Rwanda (previous chair of the AU in 2018), South Africa (upcoming AU Chair in 2020) and Moussa Faki Mahamat, in his capacity as Chair of the AU Commission. For France, the focus on Africa also extends to peace and security, particularly the fight against terrorism and insurgencies evident in France’s multi-million financial support for the G5 Sahel Joint Force and the maintenance of a 3000-member French force leading the counter-terrorist Operation Barkhane since 2014. France was also pivotal in the establishment of the Sahel Alliance, a developed-focused initiative bringing together the G5 Sahel member countries and international development partners working on programmes and projects in education and youth employment, agriculture, rural development, food security, energy and climate, governance, decentralization and basic services and internal security. According to the G7 Research Group, based at the University of Toronto, an assessment of 42 of the 355 commitments on Africa by G7 members realised an average 76% compliance rate since 2002, relevant for issues of sustainable development, job creation, women empowerment education, health, and digital and financial inclusion. Sustaining and improving this compliance rate will be highly dependent on a pragmatic, dialogue-centred approach to increase African agency and representation at G7 meetings and ensuring evidence-based policy linkages with African development priorities and needs.
A glance at the Leaders’ Declaration from the Biarritz Summit boils down to five issues that were mentioned: the maintenance of an open, free and fair international trading system, including a commitment to reach an agreement on digital tax regulation by 2020, a passing mention of the G7 commitment to bar Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, support for a Franco-German-format meeting to revive 2015 Minsk ceasefire deal in the Ukraine crisis, G7 Support for a political solution in Libya, and a call for an end to the violence in Hong Kong. The brevity of the declaration can be taken as a crucial indicator of the overarching failure to reach consensus on the more prickly issues of protectionism, climate change and digital taxation. It is telling, that in spite of continuity on a number of thematic priorities from the 2018 Charlevoix Summit such as gender equality, climate action and the future of work, the Biarritz summit was short on detail and commitments, highlighting the fractious state of the G7 and its gradual edging into the realm of redundancy, proving to be nothing more than a glorified talk-shop. As for all the bargaining and posturing, including a surprise visit of Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and bilateral side-meetings, one can’t help but wonder if we are indeed living in a ‘G-Zero’ world, ‘one in which no single country or bloc of countries has the political and economic leverage—or the will—to drive a truly international agenda’. A G- Zero world order is characterised by intensified conflict over global governance issues, complex transnational challenges to order and stability informed by webs of economic interdependence and a gradual erosion of the US-led hegemonic liberal order that has been in existence since the end of the Second World War.
Such a G-Zero world scenario calls for a decentralised approach to global governance amidst a plurality of actors, in which both emerging and traditional powers, play a part in shaping multilateral approaches to complex global challenges and increasingly put a demand for urgent reform of the liberal institutions and agenda to accommodate shifts in realities, interests and power dynamics. In a fragmented and pluralistic world, embracing regional initiatives in diverse issue areas that complement the existing, but slowly crumbling global institutions could be one way of promoting pragmatic globalisms and issue-based cooperation in the 21st century. Forums such as the G7, G20, UN and WTO would do well to heed to the changes afoot in the global political landscape, adapt their approach to global governance accordingly or risk being labelled as unnecessary.
Faith Mabera is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD) associated with UNISA. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD.