Donald Trump has called for Russia to be readmitted to the G7 club of world leaders, opening up a new rift with US allies who swiftly contradicted him at a contentious summit in Quebec.
Although there were smiles and handshakes between Trump and his counterparts from Europe, Canada and Japan, there was no sign by Friday night that they were any closer on the deeply divisive issues of trade, climate change and policy towards Moscow.
Trump made his comments on the way to the summit, saying: “Why are we having the meeting without Russia being in the meeting? Russia should be in the meeting, it should be a part of it.”
In a Russian television interview due to be aired on Saturday, President Vladimir Putin said that dialogue with Trump could be “constructive”.
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Trump is “a serious-minded person who knows how to listen to people and respond to their arguments. This leads me to believe that dialogue may prove to be constructive.”
The last meeting between Trump and Putin was a brief exchange in Vietnam last November.
In meetings on Friday with Emmanuel Macron of France and Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, a jovial Trump claimed to have good personal relations with the leaders, and claimed at his meeting with Trudeau: “We’ve made a lot of progress”.
After his session with the French president, Trump said: “The United States has had a very big trade deficit for many years with the European Union, and we’re working it out. And Emmanuel has been very helpful in that regard. And something is going to happen, and I think it will be very positive.”
However, a senior official at the summit in the resort town of La Malbaie said no headway had been made in talks about new tariffs the US has imposed on imports of steel and aluminium – and there were strong doubts that the seven leaders would be able to agree on a joint communique by the end of the two-day meeting.
“It was a predictable discussion,” the official said. “Trump recited his figures on trade. The Europeans brought up conflicting figures that showed overall they had lower tariffs than the US. It was very much six against one.”
A second official said that European leaders made “an attempt to set the record straight, pointing out that the EU and US have the most expansive trade and investment in the world, and 70% of all foreign direct investment”.
At one point, the president of the European commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, offered to visit the US to bridge the divide between the competing US and EU narratives. Trump did not accept or reject the offer, witnesses said.
Chrystia Freeland, the Canadian foreign minister, said the discussions had been “cordial” but it was clear the G7 leaders were far from agreement from a common statement. She said the sherpas, officials negotiating the consensus communique, had only had a few hours’ sleep on Thursday night.
“Work on the communique continues,” Freeland said. “We’ll see where we land … It could be another late night for our hardworking sherpas.”
At a working dinner on Friday night, the leaders were due to discuss foreign policy, including Trump’s talks with the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, on Tuesday.
With discussion of Russian policy on the agenda, Trump’s comments about Russia caused consternation among his G7 partners. The country has been suspended from the summit for four years, for its intervention in eastern Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea.
It marked a dramatic break from the position taken by the Canadian hosts, Washington’s main European allies and Trump’s own state department, who all insist Moscow must withdraw from Ukraine before normal relations are resumed.
Senior officials lined up to contradict Trump. Theresa May told Sky News: “Let’s remember why the G8 became the G7. And before discussions could begin on any of this, we would have to ensure Russia is amending its ways and taking a different route.”
Trump’s remarks on Russia cut across a UK initiative at the summit to create a rapid response unit to combat state-sponsored aggression, such as cyber-attacks and the poisoning of dissidents which have been blamed on Russia.
Freeland said Canadian officials had brought up the issue in bilateral meetings.
“Canada’s position is absolutely clear, that there are no grounds whatsoever for bringing Russia with its current behaviour back into the G7,” she said.
Trump appeared to win support from the newest invitee to the G7 attendee, the incoming Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, who tweeted: “I agree with president [Trump]. Russia should re-enter the G8. It is in the interests of all.”
Other European leaders challenged Conte on his statement on Friday morning, and according to officials familiar with that meeting, he insisted that Italy’s policy had not changed, and that he thought Russia should only be readmitted when conditions were right.
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Earlier, a Russian government spokesman also appeared wary, with Dmitry Peskov, saying in a brief statement: “Russia is focused on other formats, apart from the G7.”
The remarks, at a time when Trump’s election campaign is under investigation for possible links with Moscow – raised eyebrows in Washington.
“This is weak,” Ben Sasse, a Republican senator from Nebraska, said in a swiftly issued statement. “Putin is not our friend and he is not the president’s buddy. He is a thug using Soviet-style aggression to wage a shadow war against America, and our leaders should act like it.”
Tensions were already high before the two-day summit, after a public dispute about trade between Trump and his French and Canadian counterparts, Macron and Trudeau.
At stake is the prospect of the current bout of tit-for-tat tariffs between the major western economies turning into an unrestrained international trade war.
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The tone in the immediate run-up to thesummit showed no sign of compromise between a US president determined to disrupt the status quo to force more favourable terms for his country, and six US allies resolved to stop him. Trump is due to leave La Malbaie early on Saturday, missing sessions on climate change and the health of the oceans, to meet Kim Jong-un in Singapore.
Trump had sparred with other G7 leaders over trade well into the night before the summit, accusing the EU and Canada of unfair business practices, and then resumed his polemic around 6am US time, complaining about Canadian dairy tariffs.
“Looking forward to straightening out unfair trade deals with the G7 countries,” Trump tweeted. “If it doesn’t happen, we come out even better!”
Donald Tusk, the president of the European council, said the summit would be “far from easy”.
“What worries me most is the fact that the rules-based international order is being challenged, quite surprisingly not by the usual suspects, but by its main architect and guarantor, the US,” Tusk said at a press conference in La Malbaie.
“We will not stop trying to convince president Trump that undermining this order makes no sense at all, because it will only play into the hands of those who seek a new post-west order, where liberal democracy and fundamental freedoms would cease to exist. This is in the interest of neither the US nor Europe.”
May, who sat next to Trump at Friday’s afternoon session, was forthright in her criticism of his decision to introduce tariffs. She described his actions as “deeply regrettable”, and said that to seek to justify a move that would damage the economies of some of the US’s closest allies on the grounds of national security “makes it harder to understand and to explain to our businesses and our electorate”.
May also warned that WTO-sanctioned tariffs would become unavoidable unless a way back was found quickly. The EU has submitted restrictions on US goods from denim to Harley Davidson motorbikes due to come in by next month. May made it clear that she did not want the situation to escalate.
“If you tax trade through tariffs there is no guarantee that domestic sources will replace it, plus the loss of trade undermines competition it reduces productivity removes the incentive to innovate and makes everyone poorer.”
On Thursday, Macron berated Trump for imposing unilateral tariffs rather than going through international arbitration, and for walking out of a multilateral nuclear deal with Iran.
“The risk is to create a world of survival of the fittest. That is not good for us nor for any of our friends in the world,” Macron tweeted. “Tensions are mounting everywhere. This G7 is going to be demanding.”