Divisions between world leaders over the direction of global economic policy were blown open again on Friday as a Group of 20 summit quickly ran into headwinds over free trade.

Government officials in Hamburg are struggling to agree on a final statement that would bridge differences between the US and most of the other G-20 countries on trade, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters. Work on language acceptable to all on climate was abandoned by the sherpas and left to leaders to hash out. On both issues, officials pointed the finger at US recalcitrance.

“The sherpas still have a big chunk of work ahead on the statement on trade,” Merkel told reporters after chairing the first session. “These discussions are very difficult — I don’t want to beat around the bush.”

Merkel is trying to find common ground at one of the most highly-anticipated summits in years as leaders struggle to adjust to the era of Donald Trump and America First. The last major summit of G-7 leaders in May ended with the US isolated on climate trade, and Chinese President Xi Jinping kicked off this meeting with a coded criticism of how certain “developed nations” have “significantly backtracked” on issues such as trade and climate change.

People during a protest march at the G20 summit in Hamburg

People during a protest march at the G20 summit in Hamburg on Friday. Police said protestors ransacked storefronts, burning cars and Molotov cocktails thrown at officers. Photo: Reuters

Talks ran aground as helicopter buzzed over the port city and police sirens blared amid sometimes violent protests from anti-globalisation activists and anarchist groups. The negotiations stumbled even after Merkel said most G-20 leaders are committed to trade that’s “free” but also “fair trade,” a semantic concession to Trump’s complaint that global commerce is biased against the US.

Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, who hosted the G-7 in Sicily, said that discussion on bolstering growth without “defensive stands on protectionism” remained open. 

The issue of climate change is “naturally linked” to trade, with an “overwhelming majority” of G-20 countries supporting Paris accord, he said.

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