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The Group of Eight and the European Union: The Evolving Partnership


I. The G8 Summits

The Process of Preparation - Away from the Limelight

Given that the Western Economic Summits are the most visible culmination of G8 activity, a glimpse into the process that leads up to these meetings is crucial to understand both the format and content of the summits as well as to see where the potential for increased cooperation and impact lie.

In terms of organization, the summits are grouped into seven-year cycles with the location of the annual meetings determined by an established schedule: France, the US, UK, Germany, Japan, Italy, and Canada. There is still some question as to where Russia will fit into this schedule.23 With the 1996 Lyon Summit, the G7 summits began their fourth septennium. The host country assumes the chairmanship of that year's summit, a position entailing much responsibility as well as opportunity. The host country has intense pressure placed upon it in ensuring that preparations are completed and that the myriad details are attended to for the series of events that allow the summits to seemingly run so smoothly. However the host can also, to some degree, shape the agenda to allow issues seen as particularly important to the host country be discussed.

G8 summits have changed dramatically both in style and substance from the format envisaged by the members of the Library Group. These former finance ministers desired summits that had "little ceremony, little preparation, little substantive negotiation, little institutional underpinning, and as few pettifogging bureaucrats as possible." 24 However already in 1977, on the initiative of the Carter Administration, a much more formalized summit developed. From then onwards, the Western Economic Summits evolved into an elaborate schedule of preparation involving both domestic and international agencies, a defined agenda and an official communiqué eagerly awaited by the international media. Currently the preparatory process is a year long activity involving hundreds of people and hours of patience-testing meetings in which topics are chosen and consensus attempted. Although the exact formula differs somewhat by country, there exist several identical elements in terms of coordination.

The central actors in the process of preparing the summits are the personal representatives, appropriately referred to as sherpas and their sous-sherpas. It is due to their diligence and behind-the-scenes work that the heads of state and government may shine in the limelight. While initially personally chosen by the heads of state or government, currently the norms governing the assignment of the sherpa position vary among G8 participants. In the US, for example, the sherpa position is taken either by a State Department or White House official. However, it has been noted that White House staff members generally take the lead in the preparations.25 Since 1992, the Canadian sherpa has been the Deputy Minister of the Department of Foreign Affairs. In Japan, the position of sherpa has always been assigned to the highest economic affairs official in the foreign ministry.26 In the case of the President of the Commission of the EU, the chef du cabinet is assigned the responsibility. The two sous-sherpas are senior officials from the ministries of foreign affairs and finance. Together these three senior diplomatic officials form the 'troika' which attends the series of preparatory meetings as well as the summits. Given the increasing agenda items, representatives from ministries such as development aid, energy and trade also add their input as do the political directors responsible for G8 political and security cooperation.27

The members of the troika are responsible for the entire process of preparing their respective state's agenda and coordinating it with those of the other members. Former sherpas have commented about the relaxed atmosphere of preparatory meetings in which mutual trust allowed them to speak openly in order to discuss concerns and resolve controversial issues. Sherpas begin the process with a meeting late in the previous year to discuss both that year's summit as well as general themes for the upcoming summit. The country that is to host the summit generally has some prerogative in choosing a special issue to be discussed. In total the sherpas meet approximately 4 to 5 times a year. In addition, various G7/G8 ministers meet in the months prior to the summit in order to shape the summit agenda.28 Each participating government also sends a delegation to the host country a few months in advance of the summit to discuss procedural details.

The role of the relevant international organizations in the summit preparations must also be noted. The summit process has been described as "exerting a gravitational pull on all international discussions involving the IMF, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the World Trade Organization (WTO), as well as bilateral and multilateral contacts among the summit countries.29 The extent of this pull can be clearly witnessed by the high level of activity of bilateral, including the US-EU Summit; plurilateral, such as the meeting of the Trade Ministers' Quadrilateral (Quad)30, and multilateral level, including the OECD, in the weeks prior to the summit. Focusing primarily on topics to be discussed at the upcoming summit, the results of these meetings help define the agenda as well as the probable outcome of the summit.

The summits themselves have become well-rehearsed and neatly packaged publicity affairs, albeit with the approval of the leaders. The importance given to the media at the summits is reflected in the work of each participant's official spokesperson. The job of this person is to whip up support for their government's position and to coordinate all coverage of the event. Rather than the months of preparation, citizens of the G8 will pass judgement on the summits based purely on the television and newspaper coverage. At the Western Economic Summits, while substance is given much weight, the balance often swings to the side of image.

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Updated: June 25, 1998

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