G20 leaders agreed Saturday to fix the world trading system after difficult, all-night talks in Buenos Aires – but only 19 of them agreed to support the Paris accord on fighting climate change with the United States unsurprisingly the lone hold-out.
The official summit communiqué acknowledges flaws in global commerce and calls for reforming the World Trade Organisation. It doesn't mention the word "protectionism," however, after negotiators said that had met resistance from the United States.
“We also note current trade issues,” the document says pointedly.
Applause broke out in the summit hall as the leaders, including US President Donald Trump, signed off on a final statement at the end of the two-day summit.
The non-binding agreement was reached after talks by diplomats that reportedly overnight and into daylight on Saturday, amid deep divisions between member nations. European Union officials said the United States was the main hold-out on nearly every issue. Trump has criticised the WTO and taken aggressive trade policies targeting China and the EU.
But China also pushed back in talks on steel, South Africa objected to language on trade, Australia didn't want the statement to be too soft on migration and Turkey worried it would push too far on climate change, according to leaks from officials.
With trade tensions between the US and China dominating the summit, the Europeans sought to play mediator.
They also scaled back their expectations, cutting out mention of rising protectionism – mainly aimed at Trump.
The US leader, who typically seems to steal the show at almost every major international gathering, also cancelled a scheduled press conference at short notice. On Twitter he said the decision was out of respect for the family of late US president George H. W. Bush, who died Friday morning, although rumours began to spread suggesting other reasons for the move.
The final language of the statement says, regarding climate, that 19 nations that are signatories to the Paris accord reiterate their commitment to it while “the United States reiterates its decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.”
It also notes a recent UN report that warned damage from global warming will be much worse than previously feared, and expresses support for an upcoming UN climate meeting in Poland meant to nail down how countries will meet promises made in the Paris accord.
On global commerce, the statement says the 20 countries support multilateral trade, but acknowledge that the current system doesn't work and needs fixing, via "the necessary reform of the WTO to improve its functioning."
On migration, the US negotiator said too much talk about migration would have been a "deal-breaker" for Trump, the European officials said. So they came up with "minimalist" language that acknowledges growing migrant flows and the importance of shared efforts to support refugees and solve the problems that drive them to flee.
The statement also shows a commitment to a "rules-based international order," despite Trump's rejection of many of those rules.
"There were moments when we thought all was lost," one European official said, "moments when we spent two hours on one sentence."
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door discussions.
Perhaps surprisingly, one country that was seen as particularly constructive was Russia, the officials said. Despite tensions over its military actions on Ukraine and political interference abroad, Russia supports international efforts on trade and climate.
Merkel's spokesman said that during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, she also voiced concern about rising tensions in the Kerch Strait off Crimea and pushed for "freedom of shipping into the Sea of Azov."
Last weekend, Russia seized three Ukrainian naval vessels and their crews in an incident escalating a tug-of-war that began in 2014 when Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and supported separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Germany and France have sought to mediate between Russia and Ukraine, and spokesman Steffen Seibert said Merkel and Putin agreed that the four countries should hold further talks at the "adviser level."
Speaking at a press conference, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he had brought up the issue with President Putin during the private leaders’ retreat to “express our concerns,” declaring that “Canada will always stand up strongly for human rights.”
"The G20 context is exactly a context where we can have these direct conversations between these leaders," Trudeau added.
Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping are due to meet later tonight, after the summit's close. Their countries have been embroiled in an escalating trade war with new US tariffs on China goods set to take effect a month from now.
"The trade war between the United States and China does not favour international commerce ... a fight between two big players does not benefit," said Production and Labour Minister Dante Sica in press briefing. "If they are able to begin to agree, it would be a good signal that would reduce the impacts on international commerce."
The divisions among the world's leading economies were evident from the moment Argentina's president opened the summit Friday with a call for international cooperation to solve the planet's problems.
The next G20 summit is to be held in Osaka, Japan, in June 2019.