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More Efficiency, Less Dignity:
British Perspectives on the Future Role and Working of the G7

Michael Hodges
London School of Economics & Political Science

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Preparation for the Summit

Prime Minister Major also suggested that the G7 might reduce the amount of paper for the meeting and move to an annotated agenda -- rather than lengthy position papers and a thematic paper which simply serves as a quarry for the preparation of the final communiqués. The British would also like to see the role of sherpas much reduced; in the early days, as in the preparations for the Rambouillet summit, sherpas met twice and were genuinely personal representatives rather than senior bureaucrats. Britain would like to see a return to one or two preparatory meetings rather than the four that now take place. The Italians, strongly supported by the outgoing Japanese Chair were not willing to cut down on the number of sherpa meetings, of which there will be at least four before the Naples summit. The Sherpa and finance deputies meeting in December 1993 was not in fact part of this preparation (it was held under Japanese chairmanship to head off a Russian request for an additional G7+1 Foreign and Finance Ministers meeting to discuss G7 support for Russian economic reform).

At present most of these meetings are attended by teams of three: each of the G7 countries sends three (one sherpa and two sous-sherpas, one from foreign affairs and the other from finance) and sherpa meetings consist of a mixture of three sub-group discussions and plenary meetings. The responsibility for coordination in London is undertaken by one of the economic departments in the FCO, but the Treasury sous- sherpa has an assistant to coordinate matters within the Treasury.

The chair decides what is discussed in the plenary sessions and what is discussed in the sub-groups, with the latter looking at particular potential subjects or agenda items in depth and their conclusions discussed in plenary. Typically the early meetings of the sherpas are confined to general discussion, then (perhaps at the second or third meeting) the chair produces a thematic paper; until the Tokyo summit this thematic paper often went to a second draft, but in 1993 there was only one before it was used as the basis for the first draft of the economic declaration. The sherpas crawl over every sentence to ensure the declaration conforms to their country's own policy and (in the UK case) prepare a detailed line by line commentary for briefing Whitehall. No vote is taken - if one country is opposed the relevant passage will go into square brackets and the host country will try to find a way round. The crucial sherpa meetings are the final one before the summit and then the all night session during the summit itself.

Thematic papers have, in the British view, become an unwieldy and undesirable practice at these meetings. They used to be produced as the run up to the communiqué and acted as a quarry for it, thus leading to very long statements even with the necessary condensation. The first draft of the Tokyo communiqué was not based on the 1993 thematic paper, which British officials saw as a reason for its relative incisiveness and brevity.

The Whitehall coordination machinery and the system of cabinet government work well in summit preparation and in the summit process itself. There are few, if any, problems of inter-ministerial communication and it is quite quick to get ministerial approval of particular parts of the communiqué. British sherpas go to their meetings with briefing packs prepared by the relevant government departments (mainly by the Treasury and FCO, but also where relevant by the Department of the Environment, the Overseas Development Administration and so on). The sharpening up of language occurs more as a result of the sherpas' own efforts to shorten the draft than as a direct result of intervention by the Heads at the final session.

One British official suggested that, instead of producing prenegotiated texts and thematic papers, the sherpa meetings should concentrate on discussing lead papers introduced by a chairman, with one sherpa talking to the subject and the other sherpas commenting(20). The British proposal for fewer preparatory meetings envisages them mainly sorting out administrative arrangements, the agenda topics and the order of speakers; a shorter communiqué needs less preparation and can be more easily redrafted or amended at the summit itself.

Source: The International Spectator, 29, No. 2 (April/June 1994), Special Issue, pp. 141-159. Copyright ©, Istituto Affari Internazionali. Reproduced by permission of the author and Istituto Affari Internazionali.

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