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Biden meets Pope Francis as G-7 wraps up strongly pro-Ukraine summit

BARI, Italy — President Biden on Friday wrapped up the final Group of Seven summit of his term and possibly his presidency, securing more funding and support for Ukraine amid concerns that the democratic alliance could weaken in coming months as many of its leaders face challenges from populist and far-right parties.

U.S. officials said former president Donald Trump was not explicitly discussed during the summit, but leaders of the world’s major democracies have nervously watched as he has mounted his comeback effort and populist parties have made gains in Europe. The rush to solidify support for Ukraine here reflected anxiety about this dynamic, which was evident in gains by far-right parties in last week’s European Parliament elections.

Biden celebrated an agreement to tap frozen Russian assets to provide $50 billion to Ukraine as well as the finalization of a 10-year bilateral security agreement between the United States and Ukraine. That agreement was intended to signal the durability of America’s support for Ukraine, though it could be undone by a future U.S. president.

Biden spent roughly 48 hours on the ground in Italy, much of it out of public view as the leaders held closed-door policy sessions. On Friday, he attended sessions on migration, the Indo-Pacific and artificial intelligence, in addition to holding individual meetings with Pope Francis and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who was hosting the gathering.

White House officials said Biden and Meloni discussed their work to support Ukraine and the ongoing talks to release hostages in Gaza and secure a cease-fire there. The two did not discuss abortion rights, which became a thorny topic as the G-7 leaders debated whether to include language explicitly endorsing abortion rights in their final statement.

Biden, along with leaders of France, Germany and Canada, pushed to include language around abortion and reproductive rights, while Meloni was strongly opposed. The final text did not explicitly mention the word abortion, but it restated the G-7’s endorsement of last year’s communiqué, which did use that term. It also stated that the G-7 leaders support universal health-care access for women, including comprehensive sexual and reproductive health rights.

The communiqué took a harsher tone toward China this year, criticizing Beijing for supporting Russia’s war effort and for its economic policies contributing to product oversupply and malicious cyberactivities.

“As time goes on, it’s more clear that President Xi’s ambition is to restore China’s dominance at least in the Indo-Pacific, possibly beyond,” a senior administration official said, referring to Chinese leader Xi Jinping. “And that effort is mostly taking place through an effort to establish economic and technological primacy.”

In the afternoon, the leaders attended a session with Francis, the first pope to address the G-7, to discuss how to harness the capabilities of artificial intelligence while also managing its risks. Francis, an octogenarian who says he cannot use a computer, has warned tech titans and world leaders about the need to ensure that AI does not override human dignity and conscience.

The president then held a private meeting with Francis, with whom he has had an ongoing relationship as a world leader and the head of the Catholic Church that has been an important part of Biden’s life.

At this year’s summit, Meloni invited a host of leaders who do not belong to the G-7, part of an effort to “strengthen dialogue with the nations of the Global South.” Biden held one-on-one meetings only with Meloni and Francis, encountering the others only in group sessions or as they gathered to take photos.

For example, Biden did not hold a bilateral meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whom he has courted assiduously. “These trips, there’s always a lot of leaders and very little time,” a senior administration official said, speaking of the condition of anonymity to discuss Biden’s diplomatic considerations.

After Biden’s meeting with Francis, the White House said the two leaders had “emphasized the urgent need for an immediate ceasefire and a hostage deal to get the hostages home and address the critical humanitarian crisis in Gaza.” It also said Biden thanked the pope for helping mitigate the human costs of the Ukraine war, “including his efforts to help return kidnapped Ukrainian children to their families.”

There was some consternation among diplomats here that Biden skipped a dinner Thursday that was hosted by Italian President Sergio Mattarella. White House officials pointed to a busy schedule during the day, as well as an evening conference he held with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“I don’t have any sort of magic formula to share with you. These are very intense days filled with lots of meetings, and we try to see as many as possible,” the senior administration official said. “We prioritize the best we can.”

Biden has made it a bit of a theme to skip the dinners at the global summits he attends.

When NATO leaders held a dinner last year in Lithuania, Biden instead went to his hotel. In 2022, he skipped a dinner in Bali at a summit of leaders at the Group of 20 nations. (Officials had to clarify that it was not because the president had covid — he did not — after sitting next to then-Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who had tested positive.) During a gathering for dinner in Hiroshima during the G-7 last year, he departed early.

Following his meetings Friday, Biden departed during the evening for a long flight that, after a refueling stop, was to land in Los Angeles for a star-studded fundraiser featuring former president Barack Obama, late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel and actress Julia Roberts. It is also scheduled to include actor George Clooney, who last month called a top Biden aide to complain about the president’s criticism of actions by the International Criminal Court against Israeli leaders — a case his wife, Amal Clooney, had worked on, as The Washington Post reported.

Although it was not discussed explicitly, in public at least, an unmistakable question hanging over the summit was whether this would be Biden’s last G-7 meeting. Biden has often recalled the global disruption that occurred under Trump, who made little secret of his disdain for traditional American alliances, and he has spoken of the concern among his fellow world leaders about what might happen if Trump wins reelection in November.

“There’s not a major international meeting I attend that before it’s over — and I’ve attended many, more than most presidents have in three and a half years — that a world leader doesn’t pull me aside as I’m leaving and say, ‘He can’t win. You can’t let him win,’” Biden recently said in an interview with Time magazine.

“My democracy and their democracy is at stake. My democracy is at stake. And so name me a world leader other than [Viktor] Orban and [Vladimir] Putin who think that Trump should be the world leader in the United States of America,” he added.

The senior administration official sought to downplay those concerns.

“The conversation was mostly around the fact that this is the year of the election, and many remarked that more than 60 countries are going to the ballot box,” the official said. “More people are voting this year than in human history, and it’s a moment for leaders to demonstrate that multilateralism is still a force multiplier.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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