US-EU trade pact, Syria top agenda as G8 chiefs convene in Belfast

Obama hails Belfast's emergence from bloodshed as inspiration for meeting, which Cameron says will drive prosperity all over the world

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 June, 2013, 6:45am

Leaders of eight of the world's wealthiest nations sought elusive progress on lowering trans-Atlantic trade barriers and pushing the warring factions in Syria towards the negotiating table as the G8 summit opened yesterday amid high security in peaceful Northern Ireland.

Ahead of the official welcome gathering, the United States and European Union launched negotiations for the world's most ambitious free-trade deal. The first round would take place in Washington next month, US President Barack Obama said. It is expected to take at least 18 months to conclude the negotiations.

"This is a once-in-a-generation prize and we are determined to seize it," said British Prime Minister David Cameron, flanked by Obama and the presidents of the European Commission and the European Council.

Earlier, Cameron and Obama appealed to their colleagues to draw inspiration from Northern Ireland's efforts to reconcile British Protestants and Irish Catholics after decades of bloodshed.

Obama spoke at Belfast's Waterfront Hall, where President Bill Clinton hailed the signing of the Good Friday peace accords 15 years ago. Standing in front of high school pupils dressed in navy and maroon uniform blazers, Obama touted the economic turnaround that has helped turn the area from a war zone into a burgeoning tourist destination. The shift was "sheer, bloody genius", he said, paraphrasing the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. "This island is now chic!"

This is a once-in-a-generation prize and we are determined to seize it

"This will be a summit that will drive growth and prosperity all over the world," Cameron declared as he arrived at the summit venue ahead of Obama and leaders from Canada, Russia, Germany, France, Italy and Japan as well as the 27-nation EU.

Trade is the easy part of the agenda. Later over a working dinner, Russia's support for the Syrian government was to be on the menu.

Cameron said he wanted the summit to deliver a firm plan for promoting multi-faction talks in Geneva. Moscow officially shares that goal but keeps shipping military aid to President Bashar al-Assad. Russian President Vladimir Putin remains opposed to plans by the West to ship arms to rebels struggling to topple Assad.

At their first face-to-face meeting in a year, Obama will try to convince Putin to bring Assad to the negotiating table, but the Kremlin chief has warned the West it risks sowing turmoil across the Middle East by stoking the conflict.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper made it clear few of the G8's other leaders expected Putin to change his position.

"I don't think we should fool ourselves. This is the G7 plus one," Harper said.

"Unless there's a big shift of position on his part, we're not going to get a common position with him at the G8."

On Sunday, Putin described Assad's foes as cannibals who ate their enemies' intestines in front of media cameras. "Are these the people you want to support? Is it them who you want to supply with weapons?" Putin said in London on his way to the G8.

Obama's special assistant for international economic affairs, Caroline Atkinson, said the leaders would also discuss steps to combat illegal tax evasion and legal tax avoidance through profit-shifting among countries.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, German Chancellor Dr Angela Merkel and other leaders will probably discuss the role of central banks and monetary policy.

Japan's Abe will use the opportunity to explain his cocktail of fiscal and monetary stimulus known as "Abenomics" to the leaders as investors try to absorb the implications of a signal by the US Federal Reserve that it may start to slow its money-printing.

Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg