When Boris Johnson arrives at his first G7 summit in Biarritz, France this weekend, he will surely reflect on what an odd gathering it is. Recent annual meetings have ended in acrimony. Most of the world’s media will be focused on whether 12 global leaders can get through 36 hours or so without a diplomatic disaster. Given the laudable themes chosen by the French hosts of fighting inequality, addressing the powers of the big tech companies and promoting biodiversity, can a meaningful communique be agreed on these issues with President Trump? Will the new British PM look as if he has any worthwhile relations with President Macron and Chancellor Merkel? Can this group agree on anything about how to handle Iran?
In short, there is huge scope for the leadership of the Western world to look more divided by the end of the meeting than it did at the beginning.
Yet Boris Johnson also has, of course, an opportunity to give some substance to the idea of “global Britain” and to show that our bitter divisions over Brexit are not the only attribute by which this country should be defined. In fact, this gathering, including his much-vaunted encounter with Trump that might precede it, is the main chance he will have to do so before those domestic divisions enter their most intense and decisive phase.
There will be plenty for him to say about the immense contribution to the world made by British citizens and taxpayers — from generous overseas aid to the tireless efforts of our armed forces, intelligence services and diplomats to keep the peace around the globe. Without Britain, this would be a poorer, meaner and more violent world.
But something more than that will be needed, as every sceptical journalist prepares to write about the apparently inward-looking and disaster-prone UK, and seeks to portray a reckless government in London approaching its imminent fall. And much more is in any case required if the disparate group squeezing around the table in Biarritz is going to show the slightest sign of common purpose.
Boris should not attempt to corral his fellow heads of government into a common line on every issue, nor set himself up as the go-between for the US and Europe. Such efforts would be doomed to fail, for now at least, and more likely to end in ridicule than renown. Brexit inevitably involves being less influential in EU capitals, even if it brings the warmth of the Trump White House.
What he can do is to present a bigger vision of what the free, democratic nations of the world should be focused on, and present ideas that could even give them some energy and unity. He could show that leaders can rise above parochial and short-term problems and identify the issues they really need to tackle before it is too late.
The most pressing of these is climate change and the steady destruction of the natural world, about which he has a heartfelt passion. He should give free rein to his instincts on that. Additionally, here are four vital themes on which Britain can give a lead, and then make a big contribution:
What he can do is to present a bigger vision of what the free, democratic nations of the world should be focused on, and present ideas that could even give them some energy and unity
The G7 needs to think ahead to the rise of great mega-cities in Africa. Over the next 30 years, around half the expansion of the world’s population is expected to be on the African continent. Today’s towns will expand into vast cities of tens of millions of people. There is no point having any global goals for economic growth, reducing inequality and halting waves of migration or fighting terrorism unless this is taken into account. So the G7 would be wise to harness together their development budgets, education efforts, commercial priorities and political alliances to give those cities every possible chance of success.
The European nations of the G7 need to give attention to the instability of the western Balkans and the drift away from the Western alliance of Turkey. This makes south-east Europe, as so often over the centuries, the biggest strategic threat to the stability of the continent. With the US at loggerheads with Turkey over the purchase of Russian missiles, a coordinated Western approach to the whole region is urgently needed.
The G7 and similar nations should be restating the case for freedom. The end of the Cold War has deprived democratic nations of their automatic unity, and the global financial crisis has rocked their self-confidence. The nations represented at Biarritz are not short of meetings for their leaders to attend. They are desperately short, however, of ideas around which they can coalesce, to address the main threats that will overcome them unless they look far enough ahead now. — The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019