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The G7 Summit Will Show What Sort of Brexit Britain Faces

Tristen Naylor, London School of Economics
August 22, 2019

By the time Boris Johnson leaves his first G7 meeting as prime minister this weekend in France, we'll know what sort of Brexit Britain is heading into. Not only will the uncertainty over the European Union's willingness to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement be over, but we'll know whether Britain's closest non-European trading partners will help the United Kingdom weather the "no deal" economic storm. The G7 Biarritz Summit will be the most important summit in the history of Britain's 44-year membership in the group, sealing the UK's post-Brexit fate.

G7 summits don't matter much anymore. The group lost its spot as the top-tier economic forum, passing the mantel of leadership to the G20 in the wake of the global financial crisis. Moreover, when it comes to the most important global challenges — from climate change to international trade — unanimous positions are a thing of the past. Rather than driving policy forward, the club is instead forced to play a rear-guard action, defending global order from Donald Trump's revisionist "America first" foreign policy. The annual meeting of the West's largest economies has thus become a relatively inconsequential affair. For Britain, though, this year things are different.

The real action won't actually be at the negotiation table, but rather in the hallways and meeting rooms outside the formal summit chamber. It's in the margins that Prime Minister Johnson will have the most consequential conversations with the European Union, the United States and key Commonwealth governments.

The Biarritz Summit will be the last chance Johnson has to cajole European leaders into renegotiating the withdrawal agreement, laying the groundwork for doing so by meeting with Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel this week in advance of the summit. Should the prime minister fail to convince them to reverse what has so far been a resolute stance rejecting further negotiations, a no-deal Brexit will become a near certainty. After this weekend, there will certainly be no time left to return to the negotiating table before the October 31 deadline.

The summit will also offer Johnson his first meeting with Donald Trump. Trump intends to meet with Johnson first, in a snub to summit host Macron, and stated that he favours a no-deal Brexit. This comes on the heels of U.S. National security advisor John Bolton's statement last week that Britain would be first in the queue for a new U.S.-UK trade agreement. While Johnson and Trump's meeting on the sidelines of the summit is meant to send the message that the economic damage caused by a no-deal Brexit would be eased by a new U.S.-UK trade agreement, it will be a sentiment largely without substance. U.S. speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi has already said that Congress would not pass any new agreement if Brexit were to imperil the Good Friday Agreement.

Canada, Australia, South Africa and India will also be in Biarritz, giving Johnson the chance to demonstrate that Brexit will make strengthened economic relationships with Britain's Commonwealth partners possible. While Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has said Australia could sign a new trade agreement within weeks of Brexit and South Africa in the midst of negotiations, Canada has refused to extend to the United Kingdom the same terms under which it trades with the European Union in a no deal scenario and India stated it has no hurry to come to the UK's aid. Johnson thus faces a mixed bag. Even if he is able to change Justin Trudeau's or Narendra Modi's position, neither would be able to actually rush trade deals through their legislatures. Signals of help, even if they are sent, would be of little actual value.

This year's G7 is critically important for Boris Johnson and Britain's post-Brexit future. It's both the Prime Minister's last chance to get the European Union to budge over the withdrawal agreement and his one pre-Brexit opportunity to show Parliament that he can get the UK's closest non-European allies onside to support his vision of "a Global Britain." That said, what will make the summit significant isn't that Britain's new prime minister will cajole the other leaders out of their long-held positions — it's very unlikely that he will — but rather that it will mark the point of no return for the government's Brexit strategy and the moment at which the "deal or no deal" question will finally be answered.

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Tristen NaylorTristen Naylor is a fellow in international relations at the London School of Economics and was previously the lecturer in diplomatic studies at the University of Oxford. His latest book, Social Closure and International Society, examines the history of the G7 and G20. Prior to his academic career he worked in foreign policy for the Government of Canada. He is a recipient of the Canadian Public Service Award of Excellence. Follow him at @TristenNaylor.

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