Trump at Taormina summit: G7 minus 1

JON VAN HOUSEN and MARIELLA RADAELLI

It was a noble idea: Heads of industrialized nations would gather in Sicily just 200 km from the coast of Africa and consider the forces driving mass migration and the refugee crisis in Europe. Italy’s then-President Matteo Renzi made the announcement following last year’s G7 summit in Tokyo.

The sparkling gem of historic Taormina would serve as the 2017 setting for the G7, with African leaders invited to join discussions on how to staunch the flow of humanity that has left 10,000 drowned in the Mediterranean and Italy awash in refugees.

What a difference a year makes. Renzi is no longer in power. Four of his colleagues are also gone, leaving just Germany’s Angela Merkel and Shinzō Abe of Japan as veterans of that meeting in Tokyo. And instead of the ancient seaside town serving as a sublime setting to contemplate the deeper issues at play, Taormina was turned into fortress under lockdown by security-obsessed Americans.
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Donald Trump’s first effort at personal diplomacy left many dismayed. Germany’s Angela Merkel later held a press conference and said Europe “must take its fate into its own hands” without its now-unreliable U.S. partner.

Part of U.S. President Donald Trump’s first foray into personal international diplomacy, the G7 in Taormina on May 26 and 27 was more atmospherics than action as concerned European leaders got a better look at this curious American creation. After days of negotiations, they could not conceal their dismay with Trump.

High on the agenda were discussions on climate change and trade agreements, which during his campaign Trump vowed to upend. Though staff members from all G7 nations labored through the night of May 26 to craft the usual final communique of solidarity, the U.S. position on the Paris climate accord and international trade remained in flux.

Gary Cohn, a White House economic adviser placed in the role of spokesman for the U.S. president at the G7, said Trump’s views on climate change “are evolving”.

"He came here to learn, he came here to get smarter," said Cohn without irony. Yet though Merkel and the rest of the G-7 leaders talked intensively with Trump about the climate accord, the summit concluded without U.S. agreement. The U.S. president later tweeted that he would make up his mind on the accord “in a week”.

Trump had already received pointed feedback on the environment during his visit to Italy, this from a most elevated source: Pope Francis. During a 30-minute meeting on May 24, the pontiff gave the president an encyclical entitled “Laudato Sì: On Care for Our Common Home” that he addressed to “every person living on this planet”. The encyclical is a manifesto against environmental degradation and social inequity. It says exploitation of the planet and poverty are two sides of the same coin.

During the meeting the Pope also talked with Trump about religious tolerance, freedom of religion and the undesirability of walls. He then gave the U.S. president an olive branch medallion, “so you can be an instrument of peace”, said Francis.

“I will listen to your words,” Trump replied, according to Italian media sources. The president’s awkwardness was lightened by his wife and daughter, who added an element of grace and dress appropriate to an audience with the pontiff. Later Melania visited the Ospedale Bambin Gesù, a hospital dedicated to entirely to the children of Rome and popes, while Ivanka visited the Comunità di Sant’Egidio, a favorite of Pope Francis, who often praises the community for its work in combating human trafficking and caring for the poor and elderly.

As planned, African leaders did attend the G7 in Taormina, but full discussions on the issue had already been shelved before the summit even began.

Luca Da Fraia, head of the Italian NGO Interaid, said Italy proposed a standalone statement on migration to be endorsed by G7 leaders, but the U.S offered up its own version before the meeting that proved unacceptable to the Italians.

Aldo Cazzullo, columnist at the Corriere della Sera newspaper, notes that “every attempt was made to exorcise the image of the American against the rest of the world, so the G7 gave birth to vague conclusions without the commitments needed to stop the desertification of Africa and migration”.

“No steps forward, but rather some steps back,” said Cazzullo.

In the end, it seems the summit was largely a meet-and-great gathering for leaders to be feted and get to know each other. In addition to Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, French President Emmanuel Macron, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni and UK Prime Minister Theresa May are all new on the job within the last year.

May left the summit early and hurried back to the UK to deal with the aftermath of the Manchester terrorist attack as Britain remains on highest-level alert. One thing all G7 leaders agreed upon in their final communique was the importance of the fight against terrorism.

The final G7 declaration also urges Internet social media providers to “act urgently in developing and sharing new technologies and tools to improve automatic detection of content promoting incitement to violence”.

But as the British prime minister returned to a security crisis while planes, soldiers and warships patrolled Taormina, it seemed little had been done to address the root causes driving the displaced and disenchanted.

This analysis first appeared in the Khaleej Times of Dubai.