Delivering the European Union’s message of defending the rules-based order is being made harder by the political stance of some G7 members – but an agenda with multilateralism at its core is easing communication in the face of stiff resistance, writes Jan Wouters, director, Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies, KU Leuven
On the website of the European Union there is an interesting reference to the G7 Biarritz Summit. Apart from the rather obvious information that “President Donald Tusk and President Jean-Claude Juncker will represent the EU at the G7 summit”, it states that “the G7 summit will be an opportunity for the EU to defend the rules-based order and its organisations as the best approach for global governance”.
That is exactly what the European Union should do, and what it is good at.
At a traditional G7 summit there should be no real need to defend the multilateral order: G7 leaders have time and again expressed their strong support for it, and the G7 itself is an integral – albeit informal – part of such order. Why preach to the converted? However, these are not normal times. US president Donald Trump has repeatedly attacked international organisations and his administration has been gravely violating its obligations under the World Trade Organization, as well as undercutting the functioning of its rules-based dispute settlement system. At the United Nations General Assembly in September 2018, Trump explicitly stated that “America will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance”.
But the problems go beyond Trump. The United Kingdom has a new prime minister who has shamelessly misled the British electorate about the functioning of the European Union in order to trigger Brexit, and who threatens not to pay the United Kingdom’s outstanding dues to the European Union. Italy is being run by a government with populist tendencies that has repeatedly been at loggerheads with EU institutions about budgetary and other previously agreed multilateral arrangements. The fact that two of the EU’s own members – G7 members – are in such a political situation makes delivering the EU’s message at the G7 complicated.
It helps, though, that France has been running a very energetic G7 presidency, with multilateralism at its core. The G7 foreign ministers’ communiqué of 6 April 2019 is littered with references to multilateral cooperation. The same applies to other documents, such as the foreign ministers’ statement on non-proliferation and disarmament.
The devil is, however, in the details. It will probably not be too difficult to maintain generic references to multilateralism in the Biarritz outcome documents. But whether there will be clear and concrete language on respecting and safeguarding the multilateral trading system and the WTO dispute settlement mechanism, on upholding the Paris Agreement on climate change and on the nuclear agreement with Iran will be quite a different matter. The European Union should try to make the language in those outcome documents as specific as possible, even if it meets stiff resistance. The recent experience of the G20 Osaka Summit may help Juncker and Tusk to prepare for difficult negotiations in Biarritz.
The European Union has already done some excellent homework: on 17 June, the Foreign Affairs Council adopted much-needed conclusions on “EU action to strengthen rules-based multilateralism”. This document is a comprehensive, detailed and up-to-date overview of how the European Union intends to “[speak] with one voice in relevant international fora” to promote “a multilateral system that is rules and rights-based”.
For the EU to speak with one voice, it needs a thorough process of ex ante internal coordination with all its members on the issues on the agenda of the international forum in question. That, too, is a challenge for the Biarritz Summit.
Indeed, a key priority for the French G7 presidency – chased by the gilets jaunes at home – is tackling “increasing levels of inequality”, which it sees as “a serious threat to social cohesion and economic development to the benefit of all”. This overall goal is split into five ambitious sub-goals: “Combating inequalities of fate; reduction of environmental inequalities; promotion of fairer and more equitable trade, tax and development policies; action for peace, against security threats and terrorism; and best use of the opportunities provided by digital technology and artificial intelligence.”
It is a very bold, but righteous, agenda, which touches on myriad formal and informal governance forums, instruments and mechanisms. It is thus a pity that the EU Council conclusions of 17 June do not focus more on the G7 and do not target these detailed goals more concretely. The conclusions only stress, in passing, the need to “intensify cooperation with … international organisations and fora such as the G7”. On substance, they do not come much further than confirming the European Union’s commitment to “continue fostering international action on … equality, including gender equality”.
Hopefully, the European Union and its members will have been able to coordinate and prepare their positions prior to the G7 Biarritz Summit in a much more detailed manner.