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G7 leaders huddle in Italy, escaping political peril at home

<i>Stefan Rousseau/Pool/Getty Images via CNN Newsource</i><br/>European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen
Stefan Rousseau/Pool/Getty Images via CNN Newsource
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen

By Kevin Liptak, CNN

(CNN) — When the Group of 7 posed for its ritual family photo Thursday on the rocky Adriatic coast of Italy, the image was not of leaders at the height of their political strength.

Instead, nearly to a person, the leaders assembling at a luxury resort in Puglia find themselves weakened at home by elections, scandal or waning influence. Amid the olive trees and swimming pools, the anti-incumbent sentiments coursing through Western democracies are creating extraordinarily high stakes for global geopolitics.

Rarely has the yearly gathering of the world’s leading economies been so overshadowed by the political vulnerabilities of nearly all its members. It raises questions of how effective the “steering committee of the free world,” as US President Joe Biden’s aides have labeled the G7, can actually be amid anger and discontent from their own populations.

Coming less than a week after far-right parties dominated in European Parliamentary elections and ahead of critical votes in France, the United Kingdom and the United States, the G7 summit will occur amid nagging anxiety about a populist resurgence.

At a state dinner held in Biden’s honor at the Élysée Palace in Paris last week, French lawmakers mingling underneath crystal chandeliers spoke openly about their fears of a potential Donald Trump victory, according to an attendee. That was a day before France’s President Emmanuel Macron suffered steep losses to the far right, prompting him to dissolve the National Assembly and call snap elections.

“One of the great things about the G7 is we’re all democracies so the leaders here don’t get to pick and choose how things go politically in their country, day in, day out,” Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Thursday as the summit got underway.

Sullivan said leaders facing political headwinds – be it Biden or his European counterparts – would continue to be “focused on the task at hand.”

“(Biden’s) goal is going to be to do as much as possible to reinforce the idea that the United States is best served if we are closely aligned with our democratic allies and partners,” he went on.

Concerns about migration and the burden of defending Ukraine are part of what is driving the rightward shift. Those have been central issues for the G7 since Biden joined the group in 2021 and promise to again be the driving topic for this year’s summit.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will attend and convene a joint news conference with Biden on Thursday. Leaders are under pressure to find ways of turning around the battlefield momentum after Russia seized the initiative amid delays in American support, for which Biden apologized to Zelensky last week.

“We had trouble getting a bill that we had to pass that had the money in it from some of our very conservative members who were holding it up,” he said. “But we got it done, finally.”

Ahead of the summit, diplomats were finalizing plans to loan Ukraine tens of billions of dollars to rebuild its devastated infrastructure, financed by interest from frozen Russian assets. The somewhat convoluted plan, which took years for the Western allies to come to consensus on, was still being hashed out as Biden was flying to Italy.

And the president was planning to present a new bilateral security pact with Ukraine, a deal that lays out a path for the US’ long-term security relationship with Kyiv but that could also be undone by future US administrations.

Indeed, the specter of leadership change in the United States and beyond is the uneasy backdrop to this year’s G7, lending a degree of urgency to their work.

“This is not a normal G7,” said Josh Lipsky, senior director of the GeoEconomics Center at the Atlantic Council, pointing to the series of upcoming elections and the wider group invited to this year’s summit. “You hear this a lot when you talk to US and European officials: if we can’t get this done now, whether it’s on China, whether it’s on the assets, we may not have another chance. We don’t know what the world will look like three months, six months, nine months from now.”

Among the G7 leaders, it is the summit’s host, right wing Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who appears on the most stable political ground. She emerged as the only European G7 leader bolstered by last week’s European Parliament elections.

In an attempt to broaden the G7 discussions, Meloni invited the leaders of India, Brazil, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates to join the discussions this week – a nod to non-Western economies that are assuming greater and greater political weight as the G7 countries see their own share of global influence wane.

Once a skeptic who publicly voiced his concerns about Meloni’s brand of right-wing populism, Biden has instead found in his Italian counterpart a somewhat unlikely ally on Ukraine. She has bucked far-right leaders elsewhere as a staunch supporter of continued aid to Kyiv.

Still, she and Biden diverge on a number of other topics. Meloni has drawn comparisons to Trump and addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2022. Her party, Brothers of Italy, has post-fascist roots.

“I am proud that Italy will present itself to the G7, to Europe with the strongest government of all. This is something that has not happened in the past but is happening today, it is a satisfaction and also a great responsibility,” Meloni said early on Monday following the EU elections, according to Reuters.

The leaders of France and Germany are contending with very different sets of political circumstances. After a surge from the far right, Macron is now risking parliamentary elections in a few weeks that could badly damage his ability to govern over the remaining three years of his term.

In Britain, Prime Minster Rishi Sunak has called for elections in July in which his party is expected to lose power for the first time in 14 years. Canada’s Justin Trudeau — now the longest-serving leader in the G7 — is unpopular, with a general election required sometime next year. Japan’s Fumio Kishida has been beset by a party corruption scandal that has caused his approval ratings to plummet.

And Biden, who has spent his term heralding a revival of traditional alliances and a defense of the West, is running neck-and-neck with a rival who’s been convicted of felonies and who Biden accuses of undermining democracy itself.

Whether it is Trump at the G7 table next year or Biden is among the great unknowable questions hanging over the gathering. Few leaders who lived through it would welcome a return the animosity that marked the summits of that era, be it battles over climate on a cliffside in Sicily, haggling on trade in the forests of Quebec or an argument over readmitting Russia at a lighthouse in Biarritz.

By the end of his term, Trump had begun questioning the utility of attending the gatherings at all, fed up with what he saw as an unpleasant and unwelcoming experience.

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