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G8 Thursday, 21 May, 1998, 05:59 GMT 06:59 UK
James Morgan on the G8 summit
James Morgan
James Morgan
G8 summits are a nice and glitzy affair, but they would be even nicer if they would yield any tangible results, says our Economics correspondent James Morgan.

Last weekend's G8 Summit in Birmingham drew a good deal of praise from around the world. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in Germany enthused over the lush parkland of Staffordshire which provided a Saturday retreat for the world leaders.

American news agencies loved the stately homes deployed for President Clinton's enjoyment. The menus were well reviewed and even Birmingham was seen as a city of romantic canals rather than as the featureless sprawl it is reputed to be in Britain.

The weather was lovely, the participants happy and the communique short.

All that marks a contrast with some other summits, but perhaps the biggest difference is that it was not an economic summit.

When reality hits at the fireside

This was the first time that the reality of what actually happens at these discussions was recognised. Instead of expecting a somewhat unstructured review of the world economy we knew we would get an unstructured view of the world.

The reasons for this change are easy to find. Russia joined what had been the G-7 and it plays no part in global economic development. It is there solely for political reasons.

Then there is the fact that the world economy is beyond the control of the countries which used to consider themselves to be a kind of global directorate. The richest industrial nations can do little or nothing to control the Indonesian crisis (or, for that matter, Indian defence policy.)

For this reason the leaders made good their frequently broken promise to revert to the formula which governed the first summit 23 years ago: the fireside chat.

No fires have been needed since then but the cosy conversations went by the board because there was always pressure to turn summits into media events. The leaders wanted as much publicity as possible to dominate their domestic TV screens and there was a kind of unwritten promise that any one of them who might be facing re-election would gain the backing of his, or her, fellows.

Settling other people's problems

In the early days the participants had shared problems to discuss and sought shared solutions: in the '70s it was the oil crisis which plunged the industrial world into the purgatory known as stagflation.

Today there are few common problems and no agreed policies on what to do next. Even if there were it would not matter much, for the market reigns and free trade is, by definition, not decided by ministerial declarations.

So they try to settle other people's problems, but even when that is within their power they fail to do so, as Africa learnt after this latest meeting.

The complex, crab-like progress towards debt relief for the poorest of the poor led to no breakthrough at Birmingham. The Germans oppose generalised charity, as they see it, Italy sees debt relief as the responsibility of the former colonial powers.

The new G8?

So should the Great Eight meet again in such arenas? The answer is yes - but not the same eight. There are four countries of the present group which should remain - the United States, Germany, Japan and Russia. They should be joined by China, India, Brazil and Indonesia.

Why? Because these are the eight countries which determine the behaviour of the globe's environment: if global warming is a menacing reality, these nations determine its course. If the rainforests are disappearing, these nations have the means of preserving them.

The environment is one area where there is some agreement that markets can fail and where intervention is necessary. It would be nice to have useful summits.

Links to more G8 stories are at the foot of the page.

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