The G-20's democratic leaders were upstaged by royals

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ROME — It could have been worse.

Leaders from the G-20 didn’t shred their climate commitments, they made a vague promise to “boost the supply of vaccines and essential medical products” to developing countries, and they locked-in a global corporate minimum tax rate of 15 percent that — if implemented as planned in 2023 — could force significant change to the tax practices of the world’s largest companies.

That’s where the good news ends.

While the summit communique — 17 pages long and covering more than 60 topics — is step-up from what the Saudi G-20 presidency managed to deliver in 2020, not even the steady hand of Italian prime minister and summit host Mario Draghi could save this gathering.

The biggest developments came out of bilateral meetings or national political interest, rather than group discussion: Canada will donate another 200 million vaccine doses to COVAX, and the EU and U.S. are suspending their steel and aluminum tariffs.

President Joe Biden’s biggest multilateral contribution happened outside the summit: hosting an anti-China meeting after official proceedings ended, on the theme of supply chain resilience. He urged attendees to “diversify” their supply chains, and announced an unspecified amount of funding to help “American partners, as well as the United States, cut port congestion.”

While France was a deliberate no-show at Biden’s event — still making political points about its scuttled deal to provide Australia with submarines — the real problem for Biden this weekend is that he didn’t get his own political supply chain in order.

Back home in Washington, Congress’ failure to agree on the legislative and financial building blocks for meeting Biden’s climate targets did more to undercut him than any rival government could.

Instead, it was unelected figures who set the agenda, leaving the United States and other democratic leaders in the political dust.

Ahead of the summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin dominated media coverage by refusing to attend in-person.

Beijing’s unwillingness to announce any major new climate commitment, coming on top of Congressional gridlock in Washington, left summit-goers and activists in a downbeat mood.

When national leaders touched down in Rome, the first port of call of many was the Vatican, where Pope Francis used those meetings to show them up with calls for bold action on climate and Covid.

His messages to Biden, per a senior administration official, were to “accelerate” America’s climate ambition, and step up on the commitment by rich nations to deliver $100 billion a year in climate finance to developing countries.

The Pope’s scene-stealing continued Saturday: His pointed gift to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — who is widely accused of promoting Hindu nationalism — was a treatise on “Human Fraternity,” which he co-authored with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar.

On Sunday, Pope Francis used his weekly prayer at St Peter's to “pray that the cry of the earth and cry of the people is heard,” while also branching out in e-book authorship. The Pope is making his encyclical Laudato si’ Reader. An Alliance of Care for Our Common Home” available free: in effect offering it as a rival version of the G-20 summit communique.

Plenty of other unelected figures were left doing political heavy lifting, including First Lady Jill Biden, who was seated next to French President Emmanuel Macron at the summit gala dinner Saturday. Her efforts didn’t convince him to join President Biden’s meeting on supply chain resilience Sunday evening: The French RSVP remained a pointed “non.”

Journalists were among the losers at this summit, with national leaders mostly avoiding media scrutiny and acting — despite endless speeches about the global commons and doing more to support the world’s less fortunate — as if they were once again hidden away in an isolated resort.

Australian journalists complained loudly about traveling across the globe only to get zero updates on the whereabouts and plans of their prime minister, Scott Morrison. Elysée Palace officials did a similar disappearing act on Saturday: “It’s like they’ve given up,” said one French reporter.

When leaders did face questions from the traveling press corps, it was tightly controlled. Reporters were forced to assemble two hours ahead of time if they wanted to catch Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. President Biden waited so long to talk to reporters, most had left the summit when he began speaking, leaving him facing a mostly empty room.

Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland scurried out of the room after just 20 minutes of bland responses to questions from only Canadian journalists. (Her staff said POLITICO’s reporters in the room were not Canadian and therefore unqualified to ask a question.)

Europe’s royal families were happy to dive into the communication vacuum left by governments, performing a notable political role reversal.

Queen Máxima of the Netherlands — the Dutch Queen consort who is also a United Nations special advocate for inclusive finance for development — was the star of the summit on Saturday.

One minute she was deep in conversation and fist-bumping with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the next minute lunching with World Trade Organization Chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and International Monetary Fund supremo Kristalina Georgieva. If it wasn’t a photo op with Rwandan President Paul Kagame, she was cornering Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on commitments around financial inclusion, or co-hosting with Draghi an official summit session on supporting women-owned businesses.

Britain’s Prince Charles ended up packing the biggest royal punch, calling out assembled leaders on their weak climate pledges when he addressed them Sunday morning.

While Draghi as summit host expressed pleasure that leaders agreed to “keep 1.5 degrees [Celsius] with reach” (as a limit for global warming) and optimistically claimed they agreed to “put coal behind us,” Prince Charles was having none of it.

Speaking of an “overwhelming responsibility to generations unborn,” the prince said he was at the G-20 to “shine a light not just on how far we’ve come” — as national political leaders tend to do — but also on “how far we still have to go.”

He told the leaders that “listening is often more important than speaking,” while reeling off stories of all the people he’s been listening to in climate-vulnerable countries, adding that “it is impossible not to hear the despairing voices of young people.”

Prince Charles’ other effect was to steal part of President Biden’s thunder. With five decades of top-level political experience, Biden is used to being the most experienced leader in the room, but the Prince of Wales can match him on that front.

He used that experience to send a warning to Washington, which hasn’t yet managed to get its first half-trillion dollars of climate finance out-the-door: “We will need trillions of dollars of investment every year to provide the necessary infrastructure to meet the 1.5 degree target,” Prince Charles said.

In the end, the Prince said he is putting his faith in private sector leaders to get the job done: “They want to make a difference with the kind of investment only they can provide” and “hold the ultimate key to the solutions we seek,” he said. His final desperate plea to politicians: just offer the guarantees and legislative signals that would help unlock that private investment.

Fourteen years into the G-20 leaders summit experiment — which was intended to broaden global governance beyond the G-7, while maintaining a forum more manageable than the 193-member United Nations — there are serious questions about whether it can deliver more than the current batch of milquetoast commitments.

John Kirton, who heads the world’s leading G-20 research team at the University of Toronto, told POLITICO that this year the G-20 achieved “an unprecedented high of at least 84 percent” compliance with its commitments.

If that’s true, it still hasn’t been able to stop 7,500 people from dying mostly preventable Covid deaths each day; it hasn’t helped to cut global carbon emissions; and it overlooks the fact that it was the OECD, not the G-20, which brokered the tax reform that is this summit’s signature achievement.

From within the locked-down halls of the summit — a structure known as The Cloud — Draghi praised a relatively small group of protestors, which numbered several thousands and peacefully demonstrated across Rome on Saturday, “for pushing us and keeping us on-the-job.”

Activists didn’t return the compliment.

Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International, brought leaders back to Earth, saying via email that the G-20 leaders “simply failed to meet the moment.”

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson admitted as much as he left Rome, saying that it was “a reasonable G-20, but it was not enough.”

While Biden insisted “tangible progress” was made in Rome — it’s going to take more radical consensus to make the COP26 climate summit a success, not to mention the president’s much-vaunted (virtual) summit of democracies in December.

Perhaps the world needs something more akin to the “cathartic impact” Biden told reporters that Pope Francis has had on him personally.

As Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday: “we have a lot of work to do.”

Hannah Roberts contributed to this report.

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