The tenor and tone of the two-day meeting in Taormina, Sicily is hard to predict, partly because four of the seven leaders are newly installed and attending for the first time – Trump, Theresa May, France’s Emmanuel Macron and the Italian prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni.
On Thursday in Brussels, Trump adopted an unexpectedly abrasive public tone over Europe’s slow progress in meeting targets to increase its financial contributions to Nato. In private he reportedly told Angela Merkel the scale of German surpluses was bad, and he vowed to change the trade relationship to reduce the US deficit.
Trump is demanding a commitment to fair trade but other G7 nations, including Japan, are trying to pin him down to support a trade order in which WTO rules are respected.
Trump is pushing back against an initiative led by Gentiloni calling for other countries to do more to share the burden of refugees arriving from Africa. Italy is on course to receive as many as 200,000 refugees in Sicily and on the mainland this year. Many of those who have survived the deadly Mediterranean crossing and reached Italy are unaccompanied children.
Italy chose Sicily as the venue for the summit in part to draw attention to the plight of Africa, and five African leaders are due to attend on Friday. But at the beginning of this week the White House announced large cuts to the US foreign aid programme, and it will not want any hint in the summit’s closing communique that the US is obliged to take more refugees.
Gentiloni has the strong support of Merkel, who also believes Italy has been left largely alone to deal with the migrant crisis and feels the world needs to share the burden. Gentiloni also wants to set up funds to help economic growth in Africa, but Trump’s aides are resisting extra funding or any commitment to take more refugees.
The European council president, Donald Tusk, pointedly called on Trump to accept that the refugee crisis requires a global response as he spoke at the opening of a summit he said was likely to be “the most challenging G7 in years”.
He said it was no secret there were disagreements between Europe and America on trade, climate change and a rules-based global order and the EU’s goal was to keep the current level of international co-operation in addressing the migration crisis.
Amidst reports that the US is refusing to sign up to a communique if it implies an American commitment to take in more refugees, Tusk said “We have to keep this position that migration crisis is global issue, and not only local or regional, and I hope we will convince our new colleagues around the table that what we need today is solidarity at the global level”.
The European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, speaking with Tusk, denied that Trump had aggressively condemned German trade policies and called the media reports exaggerated. “He did not say that the Germans were behaving badly,” Juncker said.
Gentiloni, the G7 host, will also introduce a hastily drafted declaration condemning violent extremism and terrorism, largely drawn up in the wake of the Manchester bombing. May wants the declaration to contain a call for technology companies to do more to remove extremist material from the web. Governments want quicker action and an acknowledgement from social media firms that they are publishers of the material.
Italy was already planning to call for the G7 to support an initiative to tax the vast profits of internet companies. Italy acknowledges that discussions on the tax might take as long as four years to bear practical fruit, but it represents a potential new piece of leverage over the sector.
On climate change, Trump’s economic adviser Gary Cohn has signalled that the US will not stick to the pledges made by the Obama administration at the UN’s Paris climate change conference in 2015.
“We know that the levels that were agreed to by the prior administration would be highly crippling to the US economic growth,” Cohn said on the way to the summit. At the Paris summit the US pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% compared with 2005 levels by 2025.
Cohn said Trump, who has dismissed global warming as a “hoax”, would make a final decision when he returned home, but stressed he would put economic development first.
Even if a decision is not forthcoming, European diplomats expect their leaders to push Trump hard on the Paris emissions deal, which has support across the continent. Macron is determined to protect the Paris agreement, a French diplomatic success.
A German source said: “On the climate question, it might be important to have the whole night to reach a consensus. Europe has a common position on that, but we have to get the whole G7 together.”
The effort to keep Trump on board will focus on convincing his team that developing renewable energy forms and technology to facilitate cleaner fossil fuels can be drivers of the job-creating growth that the US president says is his priority.
“If we do it right, climate protection and growth go hand in hand – and then it is not really important if it is a manmade problem or not,” said the German source.