With the US president apparently reluctant to compromise with European leaders over climate change, trade and migration, the European council president, Donald Tusk, was forced to admit on Friday that this would be the most challenging G7summit in years and there was a risk of events spiralling out of control.
A draft statement shown to the Guardian reveals Trump wants world leaders to make only a short reference to migration and to throw out a plan by the Italian hosts for a comprehensive five-page statement that acknowledges migrants’ rights, the factors driving refugees and their positive contribution.
The Italian plans – one on human movement and another on food security – were set to be the centrepiece of its summit diplomacy. Italy had chosen Taormina in Sicily as the venue to symbolise the world’s concern over the plight of refugees coming from the Middle East and Africa.
It had hoped the summit would end on Saturday with a bold statement that the world, and not just individual nations, had a responsibility for the refugee crisis. Italy is expected to take in 200,000 refugees in 2017; more than 1,300 have drowned so far this year while trying to make the perilous crossing from north Africa.
Trump’s negotiators brought a new brief text of the final communique to a pre-meeting of the G7 on 26 April and said they were vetoing the Italian “human mobility” plan, which had been the subject of careful negotiation for months.
The new text, offered by the US on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, acknowledges the human rights of migrants, but affirms “the sovereign rights of states to control their own borders and set clear limits on net migration levels as key elements of their national security”.
Diplomatic sources said intense talks were under way to rescue some of the Italian agenda on migration.
Italian officials, faced with little option, insisted the brief wording on migration in the draft represented a good compromise and said there was no problem with the Americans. The communique did reference the idea of “upstream” action on the issue – but also supporting legal pathways to return individuals to their country of origin.
In a sign of the immediacy of the refugee crisis, the Libyan coastguard said as many as 20 boats had been spotted off the Libyan coast on Friday carrying thousands of migrants.
“Today is the day of a massive exodus of illegal migrants toward Europe,” he added.
The disagreements between Trump and other world leaders have spread to climate change, trade and food security, revealing the philosophical gulf about how to handle globalisation and security.
One source said that with four leaders attending their first summit – Trump, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and the UK and Italian prime ministers, Theresa May and Paolo Gentiloni – the emphasis was being placed on the politicians building a personal bond of trust rather than delivering lengthy communiques.
Speaking at the end of the first day’s formal session, Gentiloni said agreement had been reached on terrorism and Syria, but Trump was holding out on climate change.
Trump has come under pressure from other world leaders to stick with the UN climate change treaty signed by Barack Obama’s administration in Paris. He has deferred a decision on whether the US will pull out of the 2015 deal. The Trump administration is internally divided and might simply reduce the level and timescale of US commitments made at Paris on emission cuts.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said “we put forward very many arguments” for the US sticking with the agreement.
May also raised the issue of climate change admitting that “the US is considering its position in relation to these matters” but claiming all seven countries agreed on the importance of the Paris agreement.
Late on Friday, a senior White House official said Trump’s views on climate change were “evolving” following the talks. “He feels much more knowledgeable on the topic today,” said Gary Cohn, Trump’s top White House economic adviser. “He came here to learn; he came here to get smarter.”
In a sign of the tensions over trade, a senior Trump adviser confirmed that the president had criticised Germany as “very bad” on trade at a meeting with EU officials in Brussels on Wednesday.
“He said they’re very bad on trade, but he doesn’t have a problem with Germany,” said Cohn.
A White House adviser said Trump told the G7 that America would treat other countries on trade in the same way that the US was treated, adding the President’s goal is “free and fair trade, not high tariffs”.
On Friday night, Gentiloni said the leaders had made progress on the issue of foreign trade, but that the wording of the final communique still needed to be worked out. Trump has previously promoted a protectionist agenda that alarmed his G7 allies.
Gentiloni said: “On the major theme of global trade, we are still working on the shape of the final communique, but it seems to me the direct discussions today have produced common positions that we can work on.”
Germany and Japan are trying to pin Trump down to define his version of fair trade by making him accept there has to be a rules-based system in which the World Trade Organisation has a leading role. Trump has vowed that he will cut the US deficit and has pointed the finger of blame at countries such as Germany and China. He has accused China of using exchange rate manipulation to sell goods in the US.
The German trade surplus, which reached a record $283bn (£220.9bn) in 2016, has also been a source of contention within Europe, with Berlin’s partners encouraging it to do more to promote domestic demand.