LONDON | WATERLOO, Canada (IDN) - The writing may finally be on the wall for the traditional G8 Summit. No longer can the eight convene effectively without the strong participation of the major economies of the global South.

Pressured by a shift in global economic power, and matched by a sense of fatigue with the G8, a proliferation of different formats -- from G8+5 to MEM-16 to G20 -- is an attempt to provide legitimacy to the process. The latest of the ‘G’ episodes was played out at the G8 L’Aquila Summit in Italy (July 8-10), this time in a variety of numerical arrangements.

While the proliferation of summit configurations has the benefit of involving more partners and being able to offer concessions to different constituencies, it also throws up real problems for effective global governance. At the forefront are the G20 -- as an economic crisis committee -- and an evolving G8, which has embraced variable geometry to address specific problems with different countries around the table.

Should this be seen as a phase of transition in global governance? If so, how much will leaders seek to invest in any of the different formats if they are seen as temporary? Is there a danger of a "wait-and-see" policy in global affairs, right at the time when there are urgent problems which need decisive and concerted attention?

The phrase “festina lente” comes to mind here. As long as the G8 and G20 co-exist, it seems leaders are ‘making haste slowly’, as they keep various parallel tracks open. However, the division of labour between the groups needs clarity.

Without question, successful operation of the G20 has changed the game, as at the outset, the leaders of China, India and Brazil were on an equal footing as the traditional economic powers, a status that will be hard to downgrade.

The G8-proper has several potential raison d’êtres as a political and security forum. It could seek to catalyse the reform of international organisations to being them more in line with the real global balance of power, try to bypass bottlenecks in institutional negotiation and come up with fresh ideas to break stalemates.

Indeed, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has seemed to suggest that the G8 should be seen rather as a body for discussion, consensus building, and declamatory statements – for example on the issue of the consolidation of single European seats on the IMF Executive Board. Meanwhile, she has indicated, decision making should be in the hands of the G20.


The Italian G8 presidency offered variable geometry as a mechanism to balance such tensions of representation and effectiveness. For each day of the 2009 summit, a cluster of different leaders were invited for topical discussions on issues ranging from trade to climate to aid.

The entire second day featured the G5 -- China, India, Brazil, South Africa and Mexico -- group of major developing economies active in the Heiligendamm Process of enhanced dialogue on economic and environmental issues.

The third day saw upwards of 30 African leaders at L’Aquila to discuss new aid relationships in context of the economic crisis.

While this approach has tempered expectations for straight-up reform, allowing for inclusion of the key non-G8 countries, it will not be a sustainable practice over the long-term. What it does is insert a new layer of complication into the G8 process, sustaining the "who’s in, who’s out" mentality.

In trying to avoid the question of conditions for membership, what variable geometry does is muddle any constructive discussion. Putting labels on these various formats artificially creates problems of inclusivity. By definitional standards, some countries straddle categories -- Russia may be in the G8 but has been a leader in the BRIC-group, and Mexico may be in the G5 but it is an active member of the OECD -- where variable geometry creates more of these problems.


While supposedly based on like-mindedness, the G8 club should not be seen as a monolithic bloc. The well documented differences among its members on institutional reform serve to explain its slowness to embrace change.

The United States is assumed to be the natural leader in global economic and political affairs, with recent renewed declaratory interest in multilateralism. There is a tacit understanding that the US has the capacity to set the agenda and provide a role and direction for the G8 and G20, but it has not yet set out its stall. Indeed, Obama’s G8 side-trips to Moscow, to Ghana, and his audience with the Pope arguably overshadowed his participation in the summit.

The Japanese position on G8 outreach and expansion was notably transformed by its experience of holding the presidency in 2008; the Prime Minister Taro Aso has publicly stated that "the G8 on its own cannot deal with several issues the world faces" and that working with emerging economies through the Heiligendamm Process (HDP) "is the way to better global governance in the 21st century".

Meanwhile, the 2010 host, Canada has remained supportive of the traditional G8, emphasizing "shared values" and celebrating its track record as a "highly successful group". Prime Minister Stephen Harper seems to pay little attention to the significant reallocation of global wealth and influence and how global governance should respond.

What about Europe? Europe has been failing to adjust to the new realities for a long time; the tenth anniversary of the euro came and went -- and still the EU lacks an international strategy or a common position in multilateral forums such as the G8.

The split responsibilities for exchange rate policy between the European Central Bank and Eurogroup of finance ministers are hampering the ability of the eurozone to speak with one voice while the reluctance to move towards common positions is helping erode Europe’s relevance and power at the global level.


As announced in the joint political declaration, the HDP will be extended for another two-year term, providing for sustained informal and targeted dialogue among G8 and G5 countries. If not a transformative outcome, the continuation of HDP renamed the HAP (Heiligendamm-L’Aquila Process) may offer ongoing, substantive dialogue among the major economies on important issues while at the same time providing for careful reflection on the long-term G8-G20 structural questions.

The global economy may be in a very different state when France takes on the G8 presidency in 2011, and leaders will be better disposed to questions of global governance once the period of crisis management has passed.

In the meantime, the spectacle of summitry continues. The G8 Summit at L’Aquila will be swiftly followed by the G20 Summit at Pittsburgh in September. The ebbing prestige and waning enthusiasm for the G8 faced with the energy surrounding the G20 seems to suggest the writing may soon be on the wall. But Pittsburgh should help provide some more concrete clues about the US position and in turn, the future of global economic governance. – 14.07.09

Ruth Davis is a Junior Research Fellow, International Economics, Chatham House (United Kingdom) and
Andrew Schrumm is a Research Officer, Centre for International Governance Innovation (Canada).

See CIGI-Chatham House blog on G8 L’Aquila 2009:

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.