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A battle over ocean rubbish reflects last-minute G-20 statement wrangling

Tussle reflects broader divide on show in previous summits, where Europe and others are seeking to preserve a global system of economic rules that US President Trump attacks as outdated and unfair

Ilya Arkhipov Tim Ross & Nick Wadhams | Bloomberg 

Shinzo Abe, Ivanka, trump
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, US President Donald Trump and White House senior advisor Ivanka Trump attend a women's empowerment event during the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan. Photo: Reuters

Disputes over wording on climate change and trade are unresolved with hours to go before Group of 20 leaders are due to release a communique from their summit in Japan, raising the risk of a very watered-down document or no statement at all.

Negotiators worked through the night, but several officials familiar with the discussions say things remain fraught. One said drafters were on the job until 5 a.m. local time and are meeting again this morning. A planned briefing by European Union negotiators, who are known as sherpas, was cancelled.

The wrangling reflects the broader divide on show in previous summits, where Europe and others are seeking to preserve a global system of economic rules that US President Donald Trump frequently attacks as outdated and unfair. The whole process is overshadowed by the US-China trade war and Trump’s threats to take tariff action against countries from Japan to India and in Europe.

The US generally wants shorter, whittled down statements that don’t go into heavy detail or cover issues seen as less core such as climate, one official said. It’s gotten so bad that negotiators can’t even agree on how to clean up plastic rubbish from the world’s oceans, another negotiator said. Some want an ambitious target to clean up marine debris, while other countries want it omitted.

Beyond climate, there are disputes over intellectual property rights and trade. Since Trump came to power, statements from multilateral summits have often become bogged down in disputes over whether -- or how -- to warn against protectionism. In some cases at ministerial meetings, no communique was issued at all. In others, it had been left to a "chairman’s statement" from the host country.

Even before the summit officially kicked off, a German official had warned that preliminary talks were proving extremely difficult. The fear is that more of the red pen could leave little left in the communique. At least two delegates were so pessimistic they didn’t rule out not having one at all.

As was true at the latest G-20 leaders’ summit in Buenos Aires, the biggest stumbling blocks again are on trade and climate. As of Friday afternoon in Japan, the section on climate still had three different versions of suggested language in brackets.

While Trump appeared to be on a charm offensive publicly, calling German Chancellor Angela Merkel “a great friend” and a “fantastic woman,” Washington held its line behind closed doors.

The US doesn’t want the accord to include any paragraph on climate at all. The UK and other European countries want to at least maintain language agreed at previous summits. Turkey, South Africa and Brazil are somewhere in between, demanding that rich countries stick to their commitment to assist developing countries, the people said.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro told reporters this morning that he had raised with the leaders of Germany and France his concern about "environmental psychosis."

"Environmental psychosis is when someone thinks the environment should be above all the rest," he said.

As for steel, China continues to disagree with the request for it to reduce steel production, so Japan is considering a separate paragraph through its right as chair country. The issue is particularly dear to the Europeans.

Protectionism

On trade, the US is once again opposing the use of the word “protectionism” in the text. But talks were heading toward a repeat of the call in Buenos Aires for WTO reform and for a resolution to a dispute caused by the US over the appointment of appellate judges. The section was likely to involve few bold calls for action, one of the participants said.

Other delegates say discord extends well beyond the familiar sticking points of steel, environment and trade. One person involved in the process said that the ability to compromise had virtually dropped to zero and that nobody really wanted to negotiate.

Indeed, a level of cynicism has crept into the negotiating process that one person said reflected the broader state of multilateralism these days. Another person participating in the drafting said that so many accords had been broken unilaterally that they had begun to lose meaning.

A US official involved in the process simply called the final communique a waste of time.

First Published: Sat, June 29 2019. 08:08 IST
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