Ahead of the G7 summit in Biarritz on France’s rugged Atlantic shores, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council of EU leaders, warned that it could be the last chance to heal the battered alliance of powerful “free world” countries.
By the time Emmanuel Macron, the French president, closed the gathering alongside his US counterpart Donald Trump late on Monday, there had been no transformation in the ailing transatlantic relationship — despite several coups de théâtre and possibilities for progress engineered by the French leader.
Paris played up the group’s announcement on the potential for talks between Washington and Tehran over the Iranian nuclear programme and $20m to combat Amazon rainforest fires. But longtime G7 observers say a forum intended to tackle the most pressing problems of the global economy and security remains chaotic and sometimes dysfunctional because of tension between the Trump administration and other governments.
“It’s hard to think of a topic the US isn’t allergic to or doesn’t push back on now,” said one senior European diplomat. “Or if there is agreement between the participants, it’s the lowest common denominator — at the level of ‘the sun rises and the sun sets’.”
It is a measure of expectations these days for gatherings like the G7 — which includes Japan, Canada, Germany, Italy and the UK as well as France and the US — that officials from France and other countries saw the lack of public attacks on allies during the gathering by Mr Trump as a minor triumph.
Last year’s summit in Canada ended in fiasco, as Mr Trump left repudiating the agreed communiqué and hurling Twitter insults at Justin Trudeau, the host prime minister.
Mr Macron tried to prevent a repeat by scrapping the communiqué altogether and laying on pleasing waterside spectacles, including dinner at a lighthouse and sessions in the luxury clifftop Hôtel du Palais, where Britain’s King Edward VII once swore in a prime minister.
He also aimed a charm offensive at Mr Trump, inviting him to an unannounced two-hour private lunch on Saturday and briefing him immediately after meeting Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, who paid a surprise visit to Biarritz on Sunday.
“On the face of it, Macron has acquitted himself extremely well,” said François Heisbourg, special adviser at the Fondation pour la Récherche Stratégique think-tank. “And Trump somehow managed to behave, which is nothing short of unheard of. But you can’t really tell until Trump’s plane has taken off. And even then you have to wait a couple of hours.”
The unexpected trip by Mr Zarif was part of a months-long effort by France to reduce security tensions in the Gulf and save the landmark international deal to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which Mr Trump exited last year. Paris wants to promote talks and a new deal between the US and Iran.
“The use of the personal ties has actually worked,” one tentatively optimistic French official said of Mr Macron’s summit strategy, adding that the French president “knew the key risk for the G7 was to have it become the G6+1” because of the divisions.
“It’s one of the first summits where we’ve gone quite far on discussions on the Amazon and Trump has participated,” the official said — although Mr Trump did not attend a Sunday session on climate change.“At the dinner on the first evening, he didn’t stop saying ‘We have to do something [about the Amazon fires]’.”
But that dinner also highlighted the deep rifts within the G7 in the Trump era. The US president once again pressed the case for President Vladimir Putin’s Russia to be allowed to rejoin the group following its ejection over its 2014 annexation of Crimea. Most European leaders pushed back against the idea — although Italy’s outgoing premier Giuseppe Conte expressed some sympathy for it, diplomats said.
“It was not an easy occasion at all,” another European diplomat said of the meal of Basque region specialities, including line-caught red tuna. “It became a bit tense, to say the least.”
Another dimension that stoked confusion in Biarritz was the sometimes contradictory messaging within Mr Trump’s administration. Some US officials privately attacked France’s handling of the event, criticising alleged attempts to restrict the agenda, even as their president publicly praised his hosts. On Sunday, the US leader appeared to suggest he was having second thoughts about escalating Washington’s trade war with Beijing — only for the White House to issue a statement saying his words had been “greatly misinterpreted” and that his only regret was not raising tariffs even higher.
The three days of talks against the backdrop beat of Biarritz’s breakers underscored how Trump-era summits have become a question of necessity and damage limitation for many non-US diplomats — approached with minimal expectations and barely more hopes.
“We all know he’s unpredictable and we all know where we stand,” another G7 diplomat said of dealing with the US president. “But it’s still important to get around the table and discuss these things.”