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G7 Summitry Builds Back Better under Boris Johnson in 2021

John Kirton, Director, G7 Research Group
February 14, 2021

On February 13, 2021, the British government formally announced it would hold a virtual summit on February 19 (UK PMO 2021). The meeting will focus on the COVID-19 pandemic and building back better from its devastation. The announcement highlighted that: "This month the PM and Foreign Secretary will chair meetings of the UN Security Council focused on coronavirus, conflict and climate change."

This showed that British prime minister Boris Johnson is off to a swift, strong start to bring G7 summitry back and spur it to success in 2021. Johnson will hold his first G7 summit even sooner in his year as host than Donald Trump held his, on March 16, during the 2020 U.S. presidency. This will be a fast start to the firm, well-prepared, regularly scheduled summit on June 11-13 in Cornwall, in contrast to 2020, when Trump did not stick to the plan to host his summit in June and then never fixed another date or place for a full-length summit.

A Well-Prepared Plan

This is no spur-of-the-moment summit, but an integral part of a well-prepared plan for global summit governance, as a whole, in which the G7, G20 and United Nations  work together from the start to solve the unprecedented crises and challenges the world now face.

On January 12, it was reported that Johnson planned to hold an special virtual G7 summit at the end of February, after the inauguration of Joe Biden (Nardelli 2021). Here Johnson could present his priorities and agenda for his regular summit. It could include promoting democratic values and human rights, and a united front on China. The special virtual summit would focus on the immediate response to the COVID-19 crisis. Also on January 12, British foreign secretary Dominic Raab (2021) noted in Parliament the UK's crucial role on open societies, human rights, climate change and the COVID-19 response.

The virtual G7 summit will be the first since April 2020, the first for Boris Johnson as host and the first major multilateral meeting for U.S. president Joe Biden. It could be the venue for the summit of democracies that Biden has long promised to produce very early in his presidential term. It would also set up the climate change summit that he announced for Earth Day on April 22, six days after the anniversary of the last virtual – and virtually invisible – summit among the G7 leaders, called by Trump last April 16 as a follow-up to the March 16 pandemic response he hosted. Johnson will follow his February 19 G7 summit by hosting a meeting of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on February 23, the first British prime minister to do so since 1992 – with Biden as well as France's Emmanuel Macron, and China's Xi Jinping and Russia's Vladimir Putin. That will also include India's Narendra Modi, who has been invited to the Cornwall Summit in Carbis Bay along with Korea's Moon Jae-in and Australia's Scott Morrison, for a meeting of the "Democratic 10."

The February 19 summit will also be the first outing for Italy's Mario Draghi as a leader, who, supported by almost all political parties, was sworn in as prime minister on February 12. He appointed a cabinet with Roberto Cingolani, a physicist and IT expert, as minister for ecological transition, a new portfolio combining the old environment and energy ones (Balmer and Jones 2021). This move is consistent with the need for stronger climate polices to secure funds from the European Union's major recovery plans, with Italy as the largest designated recipient.

Johnson has signalled that his agenda for the G7's February 16 summit will be broad and bold. His February 13 announcement declared: "The solutions to the challenges we face – from the colossal mission to get vaccines to every single country, to the fight to reverse the damage done to our ecosystems and lead a sustainable recovery from coronavirus – lie in the discussions we have with our friends and partners around the world." He added that his UNSC meeting will focus on the link between climate change and conflict. It will thereby bring the great greenhouse gas emitters of China and Russia into the climate change control cause.

Johnson's preparations for his 2021 global summit leadership publicly began in his video address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 23, 2020, when he first publicly presented the UK's plans and priorities for the G7 summit. He said he was poised to "outline an ambition to use the UK's G7 presidency next year to implement a five-point plan to prevent future pandemics and global health crises" (Gross and Pickard 2020). Yet he added a further priority on climate change, noting that Britain would lead "as we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of this great United Nations in London in January, and through our G7 Presidency, and as we host the world's climate change summit … in Glasgow next November."

Prospects for the G7's February 19 Virtual Summit

These early, carefully crafted, prescient preparations have joined other accomplishments that promise to propel the February 19 summit to a strong success. One is the high compliance of the United Kingdom and other G7 members with their 21 priority commitments made at their last regular summit, held in Biarritz, France, in August 2019. By mid October 2020, G7 members had complied at a strong 79%, a level well above the mere 62% they had achieved by the beginning of 2020 and Trump took the G7 chair. Compliance was led by Angela Merkel's Germany at 93%, followed in a close second by Johnson's United Kingdom at 91%. Then came the European Union led by Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel at 86%; Justin Trudeau's Canada at 84%; Emmanuel Macron's France at 84%, and Japan, now led by Yoshihide Suga, at 76%. Then came Trump's United States at 65%, and Italy at 60% under Giuseppe Conte.

Much more momentum comes from the first G7 ministerial meeting in 2021, hosted by British chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak and Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey on February 12. Although no communiqué was issued, the hosts issued a release titled "Chancellor Prioritizes Climate Change and Urged Support for Vulnerable Countries in First UK G7 Finance Meeting" (UK, HM Treasury 2021). The text reported Sunak telling his G7 colleagues that he would make "climate and nature considerations a central priority for this year's Finance Agenda, paving the way to a truly green global economic recovery." He urged them to match the UK goals before the Glasgow meeting and transition smoothly to net zero. Climate thus comes first, ahead of his other priorities of vaccinations, financing vulnerable indebted poor countries and fair digital taxation. Moreover the new US treasury secretary Jane Yellin provided strong support, declaring her desire for multilateral solutions on climate, digital taxes and debt relief. She "told the other finance ministers the US now recognised it must play a 'crucial role' in global efforts to combat carbon emissions and they should expect a 'dramatic increase in US engagement' on the issue compared with the Trump years" (Giles and Politi 2021).

Bilateral conversations have been promising too. In their first conversation, Biden and Modi "agreed to further our cooperation against climate change" (Roche 2021).

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Balmer, Crispian and Gavin Jones (2021). "Ex-ECB Chief Draghi Forms New Italian Government," Globe and Mail, February 13.

Giles, Chris and James Politi (2021). "Janet Yellen Signals US Return to Multilateralism in First G7 Meeting," Financial Times, February 12.

Gross, Anna and Jim Pickard (2020). "Johnson Pledges Bigger UK Role in International Response: WHO Funding," Financial Times, September 26.

Nardelli, Alberto (2021). "Boris Johnson Plans a Virtual Meeting of G-7 Leaders Next Month," Bloomberg, January 12.

Roche, Elizabeth (2021). "Modi, Biden Discuss Climate Change, Security in Indo-Pacific Region," Mint News, February 9.

United Kingdom, Prime Minister's Office (2021). "Prime Minister to Host Virtual Meeting of G7 Leaders," February 13.

United Kingdom, HM Treasury (2021). "Chancellor Prioritises Climate Change and Urged Support for Vulnerable Countries in First UK G7 Finance Meeting," 12 February.

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