HAMBURG, Germany — Angela Merkel knew the G20 summit would be tough. Finding consensus among the world’s leading economies across an agenda spanning terror to trade was never going to be simple.
Yet even the ever-cautious German chancellor couldn’t have prepared for the slow-burning fiasco that dominated the summit’s opening day, as protesters blocked streets and clashed with police across the city.
As Merkel tried to coax President Donald Trump into embracing the principles of free trade and back off his hard line on climate policy, his wife Melania was trapped in her quarters, unable to depart for hours as violence swept parts of the city.
Though it remained quiet within the fortified exhibition halls where the summit is taking place, columns of black smoke blotting the city’s skyline offered a constant reminder of the seething tensions outside. Across Hamburg, marauding activists set cars alight and clashed with police, leaving nearly 200 officers injured.
Merkel chose this thriving port city as the venue for the summit because it embodies how Germany wants the world to see it: diverse, open and entrepreneurial.
Yet since the summit began, the liberal city-state resembles a police-state. Its wide avenues are mostly deserted except for riot police and protesters. The sounds of sirens fill the air as tank-like water cannons rumble through downtown.
The frivolity Hamburg is famous for has been replaced by fear.
For Merkel, who is in the midst of an election campaign, the G20 was supposed to be a grand stage to put her diplomatic acumen on display. Instead, it’s turning into a horror show.
The violence wasn’t the only factor upending Merkel’s script.
Inside the summit, Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin held their own get-together, skipping most of the discussion on climate change. Though Merkel said she welcomed the meeting between the two, it shifted attention away from her agenda.
That may have been a blessing in disguise. By the end of the day, Merkel had little positive news. While the gathering was in agreement over measures to fight terrorism, the U.S. remained isolated on key points. As expected, Trump’s “America First” stance on trade and climate complicated Merkel’s efforts to build a consensus in the group, which represents 80 percent of the world’s gross domestic product.
Stepping in front of the cameras after a day of back-to-back meetings, Merkel, the day’s stress written across her face, said she wasn’t going to “beat around the bush.”
“These discussions are very difficult,” she said, adding that negotiators would work through the night.
In the meantime, the leaders retired for a bit of culture. After trading the red blazer she wore earlier in the day for a pink one, Merkel greeted her guests at the Elbphilharmonie, a massive glass concert hall overlooking the city’s harbor.
As the dignitaries took in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, violence raged outside. A policeman fired off a warning shot after coming under attack.
One German broadcaster carried live images of the riots on a split screen across from footage of the concert. For Merkel, who sat with closed eyes for part of the performance, the juxtaposition couldn’t have been worse.
Even if the German leader manages to build a consensus on Saturday that includes the U.S., it will be difficult for her to convince Germans that the summit was anything but a costly exercise in futility.