A G-7 summit with faltering leaders (except Meloni)

Almost all the heads of state who were at the gathering in Italy are in a situation of political fragility

Italy's PM Giorgia Meloni, EU Council President Charles Michel, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Britain's PM Rishi Sunak, Japan's PM Fumio Kishida, Canada's PM Justin Trudeau, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, France's President Emmanuel Macron and U.S. President Joe Biden on the first day of the G7 summit, in Savelletri, Italy on June 13, 2024.
Italy's PM Giorgia Meloni, EU Council President Charles Michel, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Britain's PM Rishi Sunak, Japan's PM Fumio Kishida, Canada's PM Justin Trudeau, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, France's President Emmanuel Macron and U.S. President Joe Biden on the first day of the G7 summit, in Savelletri, Italy on June 13, 2024.Yara Nardi (REUTERS)
Andrea Rizzi

This year’s meeting of the Group of Seven (G-7) — the group of the world’s main advanced economies — highlighted with unusual clarity the political turbulence facing democracies, and the growing defiance of authoritarian regimes that are challenging the liberal world order. Most of the leaders at the G-7 meeting held in Puglia, a region in southern Italy, are in an extremely fragile political situation, which has prevented their governments from working effectively and pragmatically.

The greatest difficulties are faced by U.S. President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. What’s more, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak does not seem to have any chance of remaining in power, according to polls. Almost the only exception to this general weakness is the Italian leader, Giorgia Meloni, the host of the summit.

Macron arrived in Italy amid a political storm in France. He is facing a difficult legislative election, which he called after the collapse of his party and the significant rise of the far right in the European elections. The French president was already suffering for not having an absolute majority in Parliament. Everything indicated that in the rest of his term he would have to preside over the country with practically ungovernable chambers that would make decision-making difficult.

The European elections have also taken their toll on the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, who has received a severe blow — along with his coalition partners — at the polls. This setback exacerbates the executive difficulties that his tripartite government was already suffering.

Outside the EU, the British leader, Rishi Sunak, is also facing an upcoming general election in which almost all polls predict his defeat, after years of turbulence linked to Brexit and the advent of an unabashed populism to the front line of British politics, a trend that has plunged the country into evident dysfunctionality.

In the United States, President Joe Biden is struggling in the second half of his term due to the constraints of a House of Representatives is in the hands of the Republicans. This has brought legislative action to a screeching halt. That paralysis affected a vital aid package to Ukraine that took many months to approve, leading to significant consequences on the battlefield.

Finally, the leaders of Canada and Japan — Justin Trudeau and Fumio Kishida, respectively — are also not sailing in calm waters. The Japanese leader has an approval rating among citizens of 26%, according to recent polls.

The only leader coming into the summit with political strength is the host, Giorgia Meloni, riding high on the back of the consistent validation of her political position — as seen in the European elections, where her party was the most voted. Italy, however, can hardly be seen as an example of stability and political consistency. Time will tell whether Meloni will succeed in overcoming this historical scourge in the long term.

In any case, the conclusion from the summit is clear. After the great expansion phase following the fall of the Berlin Wall, democracy is in decline in the world. There is a negative balance between the countries where democracy has improved, and the countries where it has worsened. It is not all bad news, as shown by the latest elections in Poland, where the liberal bloc has regained power, or in India, where Modi lost his absolute majority and was forced to agree on a coalition government. But the balance is still negative.

At the summit, Macron referred to the issue of democratic turbulence. He argued that, at the polls, the French expressed their “anger” at what they saw as the unsatisfactory way things were going. He defended his decision to call snap elections as the best “democratic response.” “We have to do much more, much better, much faster,” he said, to defuse the unease.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, one of the guests at the G-7, said it clearly on Thursday before arriving at the summit: “We have a problem of democracy as we know it being at risk. The denialist denies institutions, denies what Parliament is, what the Supreme Court is, what the Judiciary is, what Congress itself is,” he warned.

There is a deep unease against the system and the collateral effects of this have translated into the rise of anti-system groups — such as the rising far-right — the drift of previously orthodox parties towards radical positions — such as the U.S. Republicans or the Tories —and simply greater political fragmentation, which makes effective governance difficult. In this political landscape, anti-establishment leftist options are also thriving.

Amid rampant globalization, job relocation, precariousness, low wages and inequality, many voters are protesting against the leaders whom they consider responsible for these problems. The advent of social media has facilitated the spread of extreme ideas and the emergence of hyper-leadership.

Last week, as part of the commemorations of the Normandy landings, Biden used the memory of the courage of the soldiers who fought against totalitarian systems to appeal to his fellow citizens. He reminded them of the value of democracy and urged them to work together to ensure it endures.

This is the context in which democracies are struggling with a political turbulence and that hinders leaders’ ability to act, as seen at the G-7 summit.

On the other side, there are authoritarian leaders whose systems oppress the freedom of citizens and which, in the medium and long term, run serious risks of falling into unbalanced personalism, political sclerosis and, ultimately, the loss of forces for surveillance and oppression. These leaders are also losing their shine due to the absence of normal dialectic mechanisms, but they have, in the short term, a great advantage in operational capacity with respect to democracies.

It is these regimes, such as Russia or China, that today are challenging the world order that the United States and its partners have built: the members of the G-7, a symbol of Western preeminence (which, in a geopolitical and not a geographical sense, also includes Japan). That preeminence is at risk, and the dysfunctionality shown by the G-7 is as much a cause of this as the rise of China.

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