Tests of G8 Variable Geometry

Andrew F. Cooper
Associate Director and Distinguished Fellow, CIGI

The Italian hosts of the 2009 G8 summit have placed great weight on implementing the concept of ‘variable geometry’. Instead of a back-to-basics approach in which an inclusive and fixed membership meets, over the three days of the summit, L’Aquila will have an à la carte orientation.

This is not to suggest that the G8 club will not have some time to itself. The first day of the summit will be ‘members’ day in which the established G8 will meet on their own. The focus will be on the world economy in the morning, global issues including climate change in the afternoon and security/political issues in the evening. The discussions in each of these segments will be crowded. Especially so as there will be intense conversations about exit strategies for the financial crisis, the importance of stretching the regulatory regime, building consensus for Copenhagen, and reactions to situations in Iran, North Korea, and Afghanistan to list just the most obvious issues.

The big test for this first day at L’Aquila will be whether the leaders can produce some tangible deliverables. If the summit results solely in a long discursive document, the summit will likely be considered ineffective. What is needed from this smaller political group will be a short list of concerted actions on specific items.

One of the most innovative components of the L’Aquila summit is the enhanced presence of the big emerging – or more accurately emergent – states. Although over 30 states will have some level of presence, the so-called G5 (China, India, Brazil, South Africa and Mexico) have a privileged place on the second day. Here, the final report of the Heiligendamm Process of enhanced G8-G5 dialogue on economic issues is expected to recommend continued collaborative meetings. In this light, some observers are saying that this may be considered the first “post-G8” summit, ushering in a new phase of formal participation of the major Southern countries.

Will this experience facilitate convergence or divergence between the G8 and G5? Will there be a collective communiqué? Will the G5 countries be made to feel that they are equals? This importance of these tests are enhanced by the fact that the G5 meets on its own during the first day in parallel (or competition?) with the G8, in Coppito. Will the G5 look like a B(R)ICSAM extension of the BRICs summit, with Russia out but South Africa and Mexico in?

A further twist on this theme is that the host country has also invited Egypt in an 8 plus 5 plus 1 constellation. This fulfills the need for a Muslim majority country to be included in the new engineering, but it also means that Egypt will have to justify its presence over the Muslim majority countries included in the G20 (Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Indonesia).

The third day is extremely busy both in terms of the agenda and country participation. One focus will return to climate change, with a meeting of the original group of the Major Economies Forum chaired by US President Barack Obama and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Attention will also devouted to African development, a theme boosted by the presence of a host of African leaders from Angola, Nigeria and Libya (the mercurial Muammar Gaddafi as President of the African Union).

The big test from this third day, and perhaps for the summit as a whole, will be to pass the bar of cynicism built up that the G8 is simply doing window-dressing. Will this day look more an endeavour by the host country to deflect attention away from the impending Gleneagles commitments and onto domestic sensitive issues such as oil, crime and migration? A key barometer will be how civil society groups respond to the outcomes (or not) of the third day.

Disclaimer: This blog is solely intended to spur discussion, while the opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI, Chatham House or their respective Boards of Directors.

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