G7 becomes ‘G6 and Donald Trump’ as US president fights off a united front over his trade war-like tariffs on allies

US President Donald Trump refused to budge on trade tariffs he placed on his allies last week as he met the heads of those countries at the G7 gathering on Friday

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 June, 2018, 6:46am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2018, 3:57am

US President Donald Trump continued to test the bonds – and patience – of the other G7 members as they presented a united front against his swingeing tariffs on the first day of the annual summit on Friday.

Trump countered a slew of trade numbers from his allies with his own, different data, holding firm to his position that the United States was at a disadvantage, an official at the Quebec, Canada summit said on Friday as consensus eluded the group’s leaders.

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Friday’s trade session, where the Group of 7 allies planned to confront the US president over trade tariffs, had “some emotions” but was civilised and diplomatic, said the official who followed the talks.

“The other leaders presented their numbers and Trump presented his. As expected he did not budge. This is probably not because he does not understand, but because of domestic reasons,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

US trading partners are furious over Trump’s decision last week to impose tariffs on steel and aluminium imports from Canada, the European Union and Mexico as part of his “America First” agenda. Some have retaliated.

Summit host, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, sided with his European and Japanese colleagues against the unpredictable US leader and his “illegal” levies on steel and aluminium imports.

Apparently revelling in a rift that threatens to undermine the Western-led world economic order, Trump stirred further strife by declaring before the talks began that he would like to see Russia re-admitted to the club.

But this apparently spontaneous suggestion – rejected out of hand by the other allies – did not make it to the summit table, where instead the leaders confronted Trump’s assault on the world trade system and came to no immediate agreement.

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“We’ve made a lot of progress today. We’ll see how it all works out, but we’ve made a lot of progress,” Trump said, sitting by Trudeau after talks that an official said were marked by “strong disagreement” but “not heated”.

Expectations for a breakthrough at the two-day summit, however, are low, with US allies focused on avoiding rupturing the G7, which in its 42-year history has tended to seek consensus on major issues.

Trump said he hoped a final summit communique would be agreed, and officials were to work late into the night, but Canadian and European officials suggested trade would be a sticking point and that separate statements may be made on other issues.

“It’s highly unlikely there will be a final communique,” a G7 official said on condition of anonymity.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was not clear whether the group would issue a final directive, adding that failure to do so would be an honest reflection of the lack of agreement among Canada, the United States, Japan, Britain, Italy, France and Germany. The EU is also attending the summit.

British Prime Minister Theresa May warned both Trump and the EU of the dangers of entering a tit-for-tat trade war over tariffs, urging both sides to instead focus on China’s excess steel production.

Trump set the tone before leaving Washington on Friday.

“We’re going to deal with the unfair trade practices. If you look at what Canada, and Mexico, the European Union – all of them – have been doing to us for many, many decades. We have to change it. And they understand it’s going to happen,” Trump said.

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Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron had what was described by a French official as a “very cordial” discussion about trade and North Korea.

But when the two leaders met late in the day, Macron was first to reach out to shake Trump’s hand and the last to let go, gripping it so tight his fingers left white marks – a reprise of the long, exaggerated handshake that marked the first meeting between them last year.

That came after the leaders had exchanged terse messages over trade issues on Twitter ahead of the summit – a sharp falling off from the bonhomie they had showed just six weeks ago during Macron’s visit to Washington.

“I think Macron has had some very hard lessons in terms of how far flattery can get you,” said Julie Smith, a former national security aide in the Obama administration.

Macron put a brave face on the subsequent talk by the group, saying: “I think we had a very open and direct discussion this afternoon, we’ve always had this kind of discussion. And I think on trade, there is a critical path, there is a way to progress altogether.”

Merkel and Trump also had a brief conversation at the summit. Asked by reporters whether he would relent on tariffs, Trump looked at Merkel and said: “I don’t know. Ask this great lady.”

Trump’s escalation of tensions with allies was “beyond shortsighted”, said Heather Conley, a former US State Department official in the George W. Bush administration.

“When we’re at war with our allies, if we need something, we don’t have them to turn to,” said Conley, now with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “I think this is the part that the White House is under-appreciating.”

Also on Friday, Merkel floated an idea to set up a way to resolve trade disputes between the United States and its allies, a French official said.

The official who followed the talks described Merkel’s suggestion as a “shared assessment and dialogue” mechanism, but gave no further details.

The proposal was strongly supported by other leaders present, the official said, adding that European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he was ready to invest personally in it.

Juncker has also offered to visit Washington for a common assessment of EU-US trade to help resolve the dispute, an official said.

Trump’s “America First” message to allies has hardened since he brought hardline national security adviser John Bolton on to his team.

He plans to leave the summit four hours earlier than originally planned to fly to Singapore to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the White House said.

G7 chiefs have largely praised Trump for his efforts to stabilise the Korean peninsula, but they are unhappy he pulled out of an international agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions.