The sky over the Bavarian Alps was a dazzling blue, a contrast to the drizzly damp of the English seaside a year ago. But the traditional family photo at this year’s Group of Seven summit had a less ebullient feel.
The sense of relief after the turbulence of Donald Trump’s term as US president has been replaced with concern at Joe Biden’s faltering popularity ahead of November midterm elections, and anxiety over how long he can rally broad support for Ukraine with Russia’s invasion now in its fifth month .
Economies have had no breathing space to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic as inflation roars to life and governments grapple with spiking energy and food prices. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s coffers continue to swell despite G-7 and European Union sanctions, and his troops are gaining ground in Ukraine’s east and south even as the US and others ship heavy weapons to help Kyiv in its fight.
The leaders photo in Germany on Sunday was brief, perhaps a nod to the heat despite the stunning backdrop. Leaders kept their jackets on as host Chancellor Olaf Scholz stood in the middle, flanked by Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron. Biden, who was wearing his trademark aviator sunglasses on the walk to the site, removed them for the picture. Joining the G-7 leaders were European Council chief Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen, head of the European Commission.
“Sinking growth rates in some countries, rising inflation, scarce raw materials and disruption to supply chains are not small challenges,” Scholz told reporters during a break in the talks.
Von der Leyen was seen in several brief but animated conversations with Macron as they walked back afterward to the meeting site — Schloss Elmau — with the phrase “critical mass” heard several times, possibly in relation to the weapons and other aid going to Ukraine. At one point Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leaned in and suggested they “step away from the media” as they kept talking. Macron opted to take off his jacket as he scanned several phones while walking.
Earlier, perhaps seeking to let off a bit of steam on the hot Bavarian day as they settled in for their first session of the summit focused on just one of the global headwinds — the economy — UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was heard on camera asking if leaders should keep their jackets on. “We all have to show that we’re tougher than Putin,” he said. To which Trudeau chimed in: “bare chested horseback ride,” a nod to pictures of Putin sitting astride a horse without a shirt on while on holiday.
A year ago Macron and Biden — meeting for the first time — threw their arms around each other and strolled along a Cornish beach boardwalk talking animatedly. Angela Merkel was greeted warmly at her final G-7 as German chancellor, having helped steer Europe through multiple crises. Leaders enjoyed a barbecue on the beach and entertainment from a group of sea shanty singers.
Not all was upbeat in Cornwall, of course. That meeting was also where a deal was finalized behind the scenes for Australia to ditch a planned purchase of submarines from France and buy them instead from the UK and US under a new defense accord that became known as Aukus. That move threw a wrench into Britain’s ties with France that were already strained by squabbling over Brexit.
Johnson and Macron held a one-on-one meeting earlier Sunday, when Brexit was not on the agenda, according to the official readout. The prime minister did manage to get in a dig about the need to avoid pushing for an immediate cease-fire in Ukraine, in an apparent reference to the French president’s insistence in calling Putin even when other leaders say there is no point.
Scholz, still finding his feet six months or so after assuming the helm of Europe’s biggest economy, coordinated his position with Macron over dinner on the eve of the summit. On Sunday, he basked in his role as host of a summit that has run smoothly so far. He no doubt had at the back of his head the rioting that rocked central Hamburg during the G-20 five years ago when he was mayor.
It’s not the first time the G-7 has been held at Schloss Elmau, nestled amid lush green grass against a backdrop of craggy alpine peaks. Merkel hosted here in 2015, where she and then-US President Barack Obama sat with villagers drinking wheat beer — apparently non-alcoholic for Obama — and eating pretzels in the sun.
Looming over that meeting was a financial crisis of a different kind — bailout talks on Greece to avoid a potential default. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras wasn’t present but faced a united front from G-7 leaders calling for movement to end the impasse and avert the risk of wider economic reverberations.
Russia was on the agenda in 2015, too, after its annexation of Crimea the previous year saw it evicted from what was at the time the G-8.
Obama and Merkel discussed linking the duration of sanctions on Russia to its full implementation of the terms of the Minsk peace accords for Ukraine. Of course, as of February, the Minsk accords are history.