Agreeing to disagree

Posted in Other | 30-Jun-05 | Source: Guardian

U.S. President George W. Bush (C) chairs the plenary session at the G8 summit in Sea Island, Georgia, June 9, 2004.

Group of Eight meetings do not have a history of leaving a lasting legacy. That, in part, is because the organisation is an informal collection of the "leading" industrial powers - a group that includes Italy and Canada, but bizarrely does not include nascent economic powers such as China, India or Brazil. The G8's history stretches back only as far as 1975, when the then G6 leaders met in the elegant grounds of Rambouillet in France to discuss the oil crisis. Since then the meeting tends to get overtaken by events. More importantly, the G8 exists only in so far as the holder of the rotating presidency puts effort into giving it some bite.

Traditionally, the meeting itself is a non-event. The agenda is usually stitched up months or weeks in advance, with teams of diplomats - known as sherpas - thrashing out the final statement well before the world's leaders are anywhere near the venue. But this year things are very different. Tony Blair and the British government chose to use the mechanism of the G8 to concentrate on development in Africa and climate change. They widely advertised the fact that it would be a forum for tackling these issues, rather than just well-crafted phrases. As a result, next month's meeting in Gleneagles has become a vehicle for raised expectations, and a nervous battleground between competing agendas. That has led to an unusual situation, where the communique remains up in the air, with last-minute meetings of sherpas going on this weekend. This could be unique in terms of G8 meetings: a summit where something is actually decided at the summit itself.

At the moment Mr Blair faces three areas of opposition. First, his attempt to get some form of agreement from the US over climate change has met with flat resistance from Washington. Second, the UK's efforts to use tough language about an end to wealthy nations' agricultural subsidies - ahead of the ministerial meeting in Hong Kong in December - is falling on stony ground. Last, calls for large increases in aid to developing countries, especially Africa, are not being welcomed. A sign of the struggle going on can be seen in statements by the pragmatic Canadians, whose central bank governor broke cover to complain that the G8 should be sticking to its usual narrow focus on economic issues, such as global financial imbalances (a subject the US is hardly keen to discuss, as it is largely the cause of the imbalance). The burgeoning price of oil, however, will be discussed, after German insistence.

Why the G8 and not the more conventional options of the United Nations or World Bank, to tackle these issues? It has something to do with the US administration's distrust of multilateral institutions. Mr Blair considers this is a forum where business can be done, without the baggage that surrounds other international bodies. Climate change, in particular, has become such a red rag to the US right, that there is almost no possibility of rational debate in any other forum. Yet Mr Bush's attention is consumed by domestic issues, such as his looming battle over the nomination of a new chief justice of the supreme court. Mr Blair's hard-earned alliance with the Bush administration does not afford him even an uncontroversial agreement on the science behind global warming.

Mr Blair is playing a risky game. He could have banked credit for the debt deal already agreed by the group's finance ministers. But by making quite specific demands, especially on the details of ending export subsidies on trade, he is in danger of winning no further progress. In the final analysis, he is highly vulnerable to the intransigence of the US on climate change and the French on trade, as well as Germany's foot-dragging on aid. Do not bet on the final communique from Gleneagles being remembered for whatever it achieves.