Is Boris Johnson the man to make the G7 relevant again?

Britain will be steering this month's summit of advanced economies, and the stakes are high

FILE PHOTO: A temporary road closure warning sign is seen near the Carbis Bay hotel resort, where an in-person G7 summit of global leaders is due to take place in June, St Ives, Cornwall, southwest Britain May 24, 2021. REUTERS/Toby Melville/File Photo
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When British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hosts next week’s G7 summit in Cornwall, he will be hoping he can use the event to highlight his post-Brexit vision of Global Britain.

By contrast, the other members of the Group of Seven, as the club of developed countries is formally known, attending their 47th summit will be looking to justify the group’s continued existence at a time when other world powers, most notably China, are questioning its relevance in tackling the major issues of the day.

Ever since its foundation, the annual summit of the world’s seven largest advanced economies has acquired a reputation for being more of a talking shop than a body that takes any decisive action on key issues of the day.

A classic example of the G7’s tendency for inaction over intervention was provided during the 2015 summit held in the Bavarian resort of Schloss Elmau. Held against a backdrop of the deepening diplomatic stand-off over Russia’s annexation of Crimea, as well as the Eurozone crisis sparked by Greece’s financial meltdown, the summit concluded with a vague statement on reducing global greenhouse emissions, with none of the participants willing to make any firm commitments on binding targets.

Other summits have seen G7 leaders steer clear of making any firm commitments on issues, such as tackling the Syrian refugee crisis in the Mediterranean and Nato funding. This prompted former US President Donald Trump to remark after last year's summit, which was due to be held at Camp David, was cancelled due to coronavirus travel restrictions, that the alliance was a "very outdated group of countries".

A Union flag flutters in the breeze as sunbathers take advantage of the fine weather on the beach on the coast at Margate, east of London on May 31, 2021, as fine and dry conditions continue in the UK on what could be the hottest day of the year so far.  / AFP / Ben STANSALL
Britain holds the presidency for this year's G7 summit. AFP
The G7 has a reputation for being more of a talking shop than a decisive body

In an effort to broaden the appeal of G7, and no doubt also to boost his own Global Britain credentials, Mr Johnson has this year expanded the guest list to include the Prime Ministers of India and Australia and the President of South Korea.

Mr Johnson has justified the addition of these three countries to the core standing membership of Germany, Italy, Canada, France, Japan, the US and UK on the grounds that they are “countries with whom we share interests and values”.

The inclusion of India, one of the world’s emerging economic powers, will certainly help to address criticism that the membership of G7 is too narrowly focused. It also supports US President Joe Biden’s vision of building a global alliance of like-minded nations to address future challenges.

Mr Johnson, who claims to be half-Cornish, was instrumental in choosing the quaint Cornish resort of Carbis Bay as the location for next week’s summit on the grounds that it will “help to spur Cornwall’s recovery from Covid-19 by attracting more visitors and injecting £50 million into the local economy”.

But while the choice of resort will enable the attendees to enjoy one of the more spectacular regions of the British coastline, the variety of issues that need to be tackled potentially gives the participants an opportunity to reassert the value of the annual G7 get together. And it will provide Mr Johnson with an important platform from which to demonstrate his global leadership credentials.

Mr Johnson is certainly starting to look like a prime minister who enjoys more than his fair share of good fortune. The fates have been kind to Mr Johnson in terms of granting him the privilege of hosting two main global conferences in the UK in the space of just a few months. Apart from hosting G7, Britain will also be hosting the UN’s major UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November, at which Mr Johnson’s commitment to delivering on a number of ambitious climate change targets will be under scrutiny.

The UK has set a climate change target of reducing emissions by 78 per cent by 2035, compared to 1990 levels, and to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. In addition, Mr Johnson wants a ban on the sale of all petrol-fuelled cars by 2030.

EXETER, ENGLAND - MAY 21: Police officers demonstrate armed stop and arrest techniques on a driver during a demonstration organised by Devon And Cornwall Police to illustrate the skills they may have to draw upon on order to police the forthcoming G7 Summit in Cornwall, on May 21, 2021 in Exeter, England. A wide variety of specially trained police officers will be ready to support their colleagues depending on the activities of protesters, activists and others who may seek to cause public disruption during the event. (Photo by Hugh Hastings/Getty Images)
UK police officers demonstrate armed stop and arrest techniques on a driver during a demonstration organised by Devon And Cornwall Police to prepare for the forthcoming G7 summit. Getty

From Mr Johnson's perspective, therefore, it is important that next week’s G7 conference actually produces some tangible results instead of concluding with its usual set of platitudes.

On climate change, Mr Johnson, who claims the Cornwall summit will be the first carbon-neutral G7 meeting, has already declared that he wants to see other nations follow Britain’s lead by creating a “greener, more prosperous future''.

Nor will there be any shortage of other important issues for the leaders to get their teeth into, not least of which will be the problematic issue of securing sufficient quantities of Covid-19 vaccines for the entire world, and not just the privileged few.

With coronavirus heavily impacting countries worldwide over the last 18 months, leading the global recovery, both in terms of the vaccination programme and reviving economic growth, will be at the heart of the agenda.

Other topics of discussion will likely include championing free and fair trade and renewed calls to end all spending on oil and gas.

Mr Johnson is also likely to come under pressure from Mr Joe Biden, who will be on his first visit to Europe since entering the White House, to support his efforts to create a minimum corporate tax rate, a move designed to force major Silicon Valley tech giants to pay their fair share of tax.

But key issues concerning vaccinations are likely to dominate the agenda, such as the waiving of patents to speed up production of Covid-19 treatments in poor countries, and a G7 burden-sharing deal to fund a global vaccination push.

The failure to provide developing countries with adequate vaccine supplies has already led some African countries to denounce what they see as “vaccine apartheid”.

Certainly, if G7 leaders are serious about demonstrating the organisation’s relevance in the modern age, then providing clear-cut commitments to resolving the global vaccination challenge would be a good place to start.

Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National