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G7’s Baby Steps Could Ultimately Lead To Progress – OpEd

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By Chris Doyle*

There could hardly be a more stunning venue for the first major summit of the G7 in more than a year than Cornwall. A few summer days at the beach are a treat even for world leaders and the UK’s Carbis Bay was some backdrop as they met — some for the first time — under the unique hosting skills and bonhomie of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who turned up for the occasion with his new wife and baby. Even Queen Elizabeth II, at the age of 95, was on duty. She is such a veteran that Joe Biden was the 13th US president she had met since taking the throne. At one family photoshoot, she chided: “Are you supposed to be looking as if you are enjoying yourselves?”

The answer is perhaps not too much, given the scale of the challenges confronting these leaders. Public elbow bumping and smiles papered over the hidden spats. Yet the scene was designed to reinforce many of Johnson’s soundbites, from “Global Britain” to “build back better” and “build back greener.”

This message of building back better is an option for the rich countries whose leaders gathered in the far southwest of England. They are well on their way to vaccinating most of their adult populations. These massive economies can contemplate opening up society and focusing on their recovery. They can consider a post-pandemic future. The trouble is that they have to cross their fingers and pray that no vaccine-busting variant emerges to force them to close up shop again. The Carbis Bay Declaration was at its most ambitious when envisaging the world being able to tackle any future pandemic within 100 days. The declaration also spoke of an aim to end the coronavirus pandemic by the end of 2022.

Much of the rest of the world looked on and thought, “What about us? What about the pandemic that is killing us right now?” Africa is the continent that has been left way behind, with some countries yet to vaccinate a single person. Only 40 million doses have been administered so far, 30 million fewer than in the UK alone. Morocco, Rwanda and Eswatini have even run out of supplies. Here and elsewhere, the pandemic will probably last way beyond 2022.

So was the G7 commitment to provide 1 billion vaccine doses to poorer nations enough? The US promised 500 million of these and the UK 100 million. But only 200 million and 25 million, respectively, will be delivered in 2021. Most of these doses will eventually go into the Covax mechanism.

According to the World Health Organization, 11 billion vaccines are required to vaccinate 70 percent of the world’s population. So far, only 2.3 billion doses have gone into arms, with 53 percent of these being in just five countries. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was critical of the billion doses pledge as being insufficient. He, like many others, also wants the knowledge to be shared through a waiver on intellectual property rights. Local production is vital, and not just for this pandemic, but also how will these doses be administered in countries without the health infrastructure found in G7 states? What about those states in conflict? Variants of the virus will develop until vaccination is universal, as the Delta variant that kicked off in India has demonstrated.

The G7 may have failed its test of leadership on this crucial issue. Others will be wondering what the G7 will offer on climate change — another core threat to the planet. The optics of world leaders flying in to Cornwall in their own planes hardly impressed. And where were the creative ideas on reducing greenhouse gas emissions? Could they sign up to a carbon tax? Many were hoping for positive signals in advance of the UN climate change conference, COP26, which will also be held in the UK later this year. The decision to remove government subsidies from coal power by the end of this year is welcome, but this is hardly game-changing territory.

The elitist club feel to this gathering, with lobster on the menu, also did not bode well for the plan to found a league of democracies based on human rights and international law. This is very much part of the Biden agenda, along with climate change. It still lacks a framework, even though the chat is about a “D10” grouping of major democracies, with Russia and China in their sights. The trouble is that the G7 cannot agree on a strong line on these two powers. The reality is that regimes like those in Moscow and Beijing remain potent, as the impending Biden-Vladimir Putin summit in Geneva demonstrates. Promoting the rule of law and human rights is fine, but it shatters on inconsistent application, as the lack of accountability for Israel’s bombardment of Gaza last month highlights.

The one thing that democracies can do is lead by example. This can demonstrate to an increasing number of doubters that it is a successful political model. Instead, the story that dogged the summit was the so-called “sausage war.” EU leaders have insisted the UK must implement the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol in full. Johnson has stuck to his position that Northern Ireland is a constituent part of the UK and that, therefore, holdups to deliveries of medicines and chilled meats (including sausages) between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland were unacceptable. He argues that EU checks are “excessively burdensome.”

The UK prime minister claimed he was prepared to risk a trade war by invoking Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol to stop the checks on British goods going to Northern Ireland. The EU threatened retaliatory tariffs on British goods. Biden backed the EU and ordered his most senior diplomatic official in London to issue a demarche — a diplomatic ticking off — on the issue days before the summit.

This is hardly inspiring stuff. Brexit was signed, sealed and delivered last December. Petty trade squabbles do not create the right atmosphere for resolving massive international crises. Trust is in short supply between Johnson on the one hand and Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel on the other. Macron demanded Johnson keep his word on the Northern Ireland Protocol. It does not help that Johnson had, in the past, reportedly referred to the French president as a “jumped-up Napoleon” and queried whether the German chancellor had once worked for the Stasi, the East German secret police.

However, the return to global in-person summitry is hugely welcome. Crystallizing vital personal chemistries will hopefully bode well for the future. Biden has made his first overseas trip without the Punch and Judy show that decorated the Trump years from 2017 to 2019. The summit may have been low on delivery, but the hope is that these baby steps will lead to bigger steps later in the year.

  • Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech

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Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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