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Trump-Merkel divide threatens to make G20 summit a ‘failure’

German Chancellor and head of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) Angela Merkel attends a news conference after meeting of their conservative bloc to discuss their election programme in Berlin, Germany, July 3, 2017.

AXEL SCHMIDT/REUTERS

Angela Merkel has a well-earned reputation for being a steady leader who knows how to manage a crisis. The German Chancellor will need all of those skills and more when she greets world leaders for the start of the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg on Friday.

This is expected to be the most contentious G20 summit ever, and some experts believe little, if anything, will be accomplished. The prospects don't look good.

Ms. Merkel and several other leaders, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, have already lined up against U.S. President Donald Trump on the summit's main issues of open trade and climate change. There's also plenty of tension between Ms. Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin over Ukraine, and the German leader has clashed with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over political change in his country. With a German election looming in September, Ms. Merkel is also under growing pressure at home to stand up to Mr. Trump, who is always unpredictable.

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Read more: G20 to focus on climate change despite Trump's resistance

Mr. Trudeau will arrive in Hamburg after stops on Tuesday in Dublin to meet Leo Varadkar, the new Irish Taoiseach or Prime Minister, and in Britain on Wednesday to meet the Queen in Edinburgh. Mr. Trudeau will also participate in a business roundtable in Ireland and attend an event at the University of Edinburgh. He is not expected to meet British Prime Minister Theresa May, who recently formed a minority government after a disastrous election campaign that saw her Conservatives lose their majority in the House of Commons. A spokesperson for Ms. May said the two leaders have spoken on the phone since the British election but have no plans to meet before the G20.

The two-day summit is being held in the middle of Hamburg, where Ms. Merkel was born, making it easily accessible to thousands of protesters expected to descend on the city. The government has called in 21,000 police to bolster security for the meeting, and tens of thousands of people have already taken to the streets in marches.

"This could be the first failed summit, because the two big sides are on a collision course," said John Kirton, co-director of the G20 Research Group at the University of Toronto, referring to the Trump-Merkel divide. "A summit that actually made things worse, that's a failure." Prof. Kirton believes Ms. Merkel will likely cobble together some kind of consensus on enough other issues, such as terrorism, to salvage the summit, but he said it will still rank as one of the most unproductive G20 meetings ever.

Ms. Merkel has already signalled that the summit won't be easy, and she may not be displeased with a failed outcome. She's strengthened her lead in domestic public opinion polls by standing up to Mr. Trump, and she's largely recovered from her decision in 2015 to open Germany's borders to nearly one million refugees who fled the Middle East. Last week she took a pre-G20 shot at Mr. Trump, telling the German parliament that "anyone who thinks the world's problems can be solved with isolationism and protectionism is simply delusional." She's previously indicated that Europeans can no longer count on the U.S. and warned her compatriots that "the times in which [Germany] could completely depend on others are on the way out."

On Sunday, Ms. Merkel also tried to address some of the protesters' concerns, saying she wanted the summit to focus on not just economic growth "but rather sustainable growth."

"We've got to have a win-win situation for everyone," she said. "The issues obviously revolve around: how do we achieve inclusive or sustainable growth?"

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Ms. Merkel "has by far the most supporters and supporters of consequence [among G20 leaders]," said Prof Kirton. "Her soulmates are [French President Emmanuel] Macron and Trudeau, and [Chinese President Xi Jinping], who now believes in climate change controls and open trade. Trump has got the Saudis, and maybe Russia, and that's about it. It could indeed crash. But there is still a possibility that they can actually set aside the collision and take an off-ramp to the many things on which they agree." He added the prospect of a meeting on the sidelines between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin could also derail the summit.

The White House confirmed on Monday that Mr. Trump spoke with Ms. Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, ahead of the summit.

Tom Bernes, a distinguished fellow at Canada's Centre for International Governance Innovation, said there is a possibility that the G20, minus Mr. Trump, could band together and develop a renewed sense of commitment on issues like climate change. "How isolated does the U.S. get and how nasty does that get?" he asked. "The other scenario is that people just try and paper over things to appease the U.S., and in that scenario, then I think that it's another nail in the coffin for the G20. People will say, 'What use is it?'"

Mr. Trudeau is in an awkward position, Mr. Bernes added. Canada will likely side with Ms. Merkel on pushing for more open trade and backing the Paris climate accord, but Mr. Trudeau won't want to push too far for fear of alienating Mr. Trump just as Canada faces a host of trade issues with the U.S. "Obviously the Canadian government doesn't want to tweak the Americans. It's going to be a very fine line to walk," he said.

Mr. Trudeau is expected to focus on gender issues at the meeting, including pushing a proposal to create a women's business council similar to the Canada-U.S. Council for Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders that Mr. Trudeau unveiled with Mr. Trump's daughter Ivanka Trump earlier this year in Washington. The idea is for the global business council to produce recommendations to the G20 next year on how to address gender pay issues and the challenges women face around the world in regards to entrepreneurship. Prof. Kirton said Canada is also keen to participate in plans for a $1-billion (U.S.) fund managed by the World Bank to promote female entrepreneurship. He added that Mr. Trudeau will also try to find common ground among the other leaders on clean technology, managed migration and skill training programs for young people.

"Canada's three priorities [at the G20] are inclusive economic growth, women in the economy and managed migration," he said.

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As for the G20, Mr. Bernes said the best outcome for the meeting, which ends on Saturday, might be a stalemate. "I think nothing out of this would actually be a relief," he said. "That's the situation the G20 is in right now."

With a report from Reuters

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About the Author
European Correspondent

Paul Waldie has been an award-winning journalist with The Globe and Mail for more than 10 years. He has won three National Newspaper Awards for business coverage and been nominated for a Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. He has also won a Sports Media Canada award for sports writing and authored a best-selling biography of the McCain family. More

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