LONDON – Group of Seven leaders began arriving at a luxury seaside resort in England on Thursday for a Group of Seven summit where some of the world's richest nations will pledge to share coronavirus vaccines with the poorest, as part of efforts to help a pandemic-scarred world recover.
Since the G-7 last met two years ago, COVID-19 has killed more than 3.7 million people and decimated economies with lockdowns and layoffs.
As British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hosts U.S. President Joe Biden and the leaders of France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Canada to the cliff-ringed Carbis Bay beach resort in southwest England, pandemic recovery — and, crucially, getting vaccines to billions who lack them — is at the top of the agenda.
“This is the moment for the world’s greatest and most technologically advanced democracies to shoulder their responsibilities and to vaccinate the world, because no one can be properly protected until everyone has been protected,” Johnson said in an article published Thursday, a day before the summit's official start.
Johnson, who has faced criticism for months over Britain’s refusal to send any vaccine doses abroad, pledged to donate 100 million jabs in the next year, the first of them by September, and said the G-7 as a whole is expected to give 1 billion doses. Half of that came in a pledge from U.S. President Joe Biden.
Biden, making his first foreign trip as president, announced that the U.S. will buy 500 million more doses of the Pfizer vaccine to share with poorer countries over the next year.
"America will be the arsenal of vaccines in our fight against COVID-19," Biden said.
The summit is seen as a major test for Johnson, a divisive leader at home and abroad whose two years in office have been dominated by the consecutive crises of Brexit and the pandemic.
For a setting, Johnson has chosen the rugged county of Cornwall, at England’s southwestern tip — a region that combines natural beauty with a cluster of innovative tech and ecology businesses. It's also one of England’s poorest regions, where wealthy second-home owners have made housing unaffordable for many local people.
The leaders will visit the Eden Project, a pioneering eco-tourism site built in a former quarry pit, and will enjoy ethically sourced food made by local chefs. There’s even a beach barbecue complete with toasted marshmallows, hot buttered rum and a performance by a sea shanty troupe.
Johnson’s eve-of-summit meeting with Biden on Thursday was a chance to underscore the trans-Atlantic alliance and to set out his vision of a post-Brexit “Global Britain” as a midsized country with an outsized role in international problem-solving.
That may be a challenge, given the distrust in European capitals and Washington surrounding the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU and the messy process of separation.
Biden once called the blustering Johnson a “clone” of former President Donald Trump and has expressed repeated concern about the destabilizing effect of Brexit on Northern Ireland, the only part of the U.K. that borders the bloc.
But after a meeting between the two that lasted well over an hour, Johnson described the new president as “a breath of fresh air.” Biden said the meeting had been “very productive.”
Despite the bonhomie, the president and his team have stressed the need to soothe Northern Ireland tensions. Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told reporters aboard Air Force One that the president's commitment to Northern Ireland's Good Friday peace accord was “rock solid.”
Johnson said protecting the Northern Ireland peace agreement was “absolutely common ground” among Britain, the U.S. and the European Union. That may be, but EU leaders are furious at what they see as the U.K.'s failure to implement the divorce deal that Johnson agreed to.
French President Emmanuel Macron warned Thursday that the Brexit agreement signed by Britain and the EU was not up for renegotiation.
Like many prime ministers before him, Johns summoned the spirit of wartime leader Winston Churchill when meeting the president. In a symbolic show of unity, the two leaders agreed a new Atlantic Charter — a 21st century version of the 1941 agreement between Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt that helped lay the foundations for the United Nations and NATO.
The new document commits Britain and the U.S to “defend the principles, values, and institutions of democracy and open societies" and build “an inclusive, fair, climate-friendly, sustainable, rules-based global economy for the 21st century.” The two countries also said they will set up a task force aimed at re-starting trans-Atlantic travel, disrupted by pandemic restrictions.
Before the pandemic, Johnson planned this to be a climate-dominated summit. He had wanted to make it a major staging post to November’s international COP26 meeting on climate change in Glasgow, eliciting ambitious targets for slashing carbon emissions and expanding green industries.
That’s still on the agenda, but the meeting will be dominated by COVID-19, with discussions focusing on physical and economic recovery and building resilience against future pandemics. Lest anyone forget that the virus is still raging, there will be daily coronavirus tests for attending politicians, diplomats, staff and journalists.
Even without the pandemic, this would be a moment of flux for the rich countries’ club. It’s a first G-7 summit for Biden and for Japan’s Yoshihide Suga, who took office in September.
Suga said before leaving Tokyo that he would seek support for his determination to hold a “safe and secure” Olympics starting on July 23 despite the pandemic. The Games face strong opposition in Japan.
The meeting is also a G-7 swan song for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will leave office in the coming months after 16 years in power.
Asked what message Merkel wants to send at the summit, a senior German official replied: “The message of the summit overall -- and that stands for what the chancellor has stood for over recent years -- is that multilateralism, and the G-7, is back.”
Associated Press writers Geir Moulson in Berlin, Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo, Angela Charlton in Paris and Danica Kirka in Falmouth, England contributed.