It was perhaps the oddest “family photo” for a Group of Twenty meeting yet, and that’s saying something.
The summit this weekend in Rome is being held in something of a hybrid fashion, with leaders from China, Russia, Japan, South Africa and Mexico skipping an in-person appearance.
That required some quick thinking on the part of the Italian hosts for the traditional group picture. Rather than leaving those countries out entirely, they opted for a bit of a football maneuver, subbing in ministers in their place.
After the initial picture was taken a group of “first responders” in masks -- those who have been on the front lines of the fight against Covid-19 -- also joined the leaders on the stage. They interspersed with the leaders to applause and cheers.
The leaders are meeting at the futuristic La Nuvola convention center in Rome, whose architect is Italy’s Massimiliano Fuksas. His firm also designed the third terminal for Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport. With the indoor photo they were standing right under a metaphorical cloud (that’s what La Nuvola means).
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The summit will be dominated by arguments over climate and how far to go in terms of weaning nations off coal and making commitments on curtailing global temperature rises. There are also tensions over spiraling energy prices.
At the same time it was clear the leaders were relishing the chance to see each other, perhaps for the first time in a while. There were many smiles and laughs. Biden had a warm chat with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. He also shook hands again with French President Emmanuel Macron, with whom he buried the hatchet yesterday after weeks of tensions over a new defense deal that cost France a big submarine contract.
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Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is attending her final G-20 and has been a summit stalwart for her nearly 16 years in power, received fond waves and greetings. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were gently ribbed for turning up last to the stage.
There was no sign of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman -- during the arrivals it was Foreign Minister Faisal Bin Farhan Al Saud who turned up to shake Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s hand.
For China’s Xi Jinping, not being there in person (he will give a speech via video link) is arguably less of a concern. Xi is very focused on affairs at home in the run-up to a key leadership meeting next year, and he tends to do limited business at summits anyway, sticking to the plenary sessions and a few scripted bilateral meetings.
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For other leaders, though, not being there means they miss the chance for corridor chats and impromptu conversations that can help break through on thorny issues. It’s usually the action behind the scenes rather than in the formal sessions that proves more meaningful.
Xi and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin are also important as the heads of big energy nations in terms of getting to a climate deal to take to the COP26 summit in Glasgow next week.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.