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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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Summit Procedure and Output

All the British officials interviewed agreed that the agenda and the programming of the summit has been excessively elaborate in the past (a view shared by the US). The British take the view that Heads should only deal with subjects they need to discuss - to break deadlocks, cut knots, agree in principle, and exchange views on the subjects uppermost in their minds in a genuine and personal manner. The summits are not an institutionalised process with frequent meetings and are therefore inappropriate for making decisions. Consequently the agenda should be short and not over-prepared enabling the Heads to address the issues they choose. The ongoing process of consultation can then be left to finance, foreign and other ministers in their respective G7 networks and in other and wider fora.

There was a strong view amongst officials interviewed in Britain that, in addition to less documentation overall, there should be less prefabrication of the final declarations - which should be shorter and actually reflect what was discussed. At Tokyo the UK argued that in future summits there should be no communiqué, but instead conclusions from the chairman, which would accordingly not need to be agreed textually word for word.

The environment section of the Tokyo Economic Declaration contained a paragraph that was, according to British officials, a classic example of how not to do it:

Britain wanted simply a statement of commitment to the UNCED undertakings, which had featured prominently at Munich and which should not simply be dropped in 1993 with follow-up action still to be implemented; Japan, however, wanted some reference to technology, Canada to fish stocks, Germany to forests, France to desertification - all issues the Heads had not discussed and for which there was no prior commitment. In the British view this tokenism by communiqué undercuts the impact of the summits and decreases their credibility.

Even so, there are some encouraging trends: the communiqué at Houston was the largest so far - communiqués have got progressively shorter since. Shorter final communiqués would also ease the problem of approval and implementation - the Munich communiqués took three days to clear round Whitehall. The British participants are of the firm opinion that the final declaration should be shorter, should integrate political and economic issues and should genuinely focus on the topics discussed. Spending time on redrafting the thematic paper, as occurred at Munich, is a waste of time and effort. The thematic paper was originally not supposed to be discussed: at Munich there was some support for publishing that part of the thematic paper dealing with Russia, but the UK opposed this since it had merely been a preparation for the discussions of the Heads themselves and was the work of bureaucrats. They derive some encouragement from the decision at Tokyo to move directly from the initial thematic paper to the draft declaration without trying to refine the former -- since the paper was intended for the information of the Heads rather than a quarry for the communiqué.

The country that is host gets kudos but also it has to be pliant to ensure success. The declaration will by the time of the summit have a small number of square brackets, which if disagreement persists among sherpas must be settled by the Heads themselves. The Sherpas sit in the room with the Heads for all their meetings, but not meals; the financial sous-sherpas do the same for Finance Ministers and Political Directors (not foreign ministry sous-sherpas) accompany Foreign Ministers. Sherpas and sous-sherpas hold their meetings, therefore, at meal times -- including the state or formal dinner on the final night. It is this session which continues through the night, attempting to finalise the economic declaration for the final morning's plenary (where Heads settle any square brackets left and adopt the declaration). The Heads then give press conferences pointing to the gains each has secured. Most British participants interviewed were content with the rules of the game, but were doubtful that negotiated declarations were sufficiently clear and incisive to counteract the image of the summit as a somewhat ineffectual gathering.

British officials would prefer the output from the meeting to be in the form of conclusions from the chair rather than an agreed declaration after the summit. This is in line with the British view that the summit is an informal body for discussion and consensus building, rather than an executive body: it should identify problems which are not being properly addressed elsewhere and establish an approach so that they are tackled in the most appropriate body, without imposing solutions on those other bodies.

The main problem with the G7 summits, in the British view, is that expectations get built up hugely in advance and at the summits themselves the media circus has become hopelessly out of control, even in the view of the journalists attending. The summits are then seen as a failure unless they have some identifiable "success" to point to -- something to which an annual summit does not lend itself. Much nervous energy is thus spent on how to make the summit look a success. In one British journalist's view, the main value of the summits is to change popular perceptions of the world economic environment: "In an age of geopolitical shifts and rapid technological change the main value of the G7 summits is to soften up electorates and persuade them that the easy times are over."(22) Some observers believe that summits too easily channel Heads into not asking the difficult questions and even more fireside chats at the summits won't necessarily counter this. To this end, relationships between the G7 and other international organisations (such as OECD, whose Ministerial meetings precede the summit and help to inform discussion at the summit itself) could be strengthened, in order to use the analytical work of others to inform and structure these informal discussions.

Down-playing media expectations is different from reducing the value of summits. The pressure to produce results leads to excessive preparation and pre-cooking. Japan is sensitive on downgrading the status of summits. The summit timetable does increase constructive pressure to achieve results - such as the positive momentum that the Tokyo summit gave to the GATT talks. The press doesn't know what really goes on in the summit meetings and relies heavily on briefings from the press secretaries of the various Heads. Each of these briefings gives a different idea of who succeeded. The G7 summit is not really more than a photo-call and sometimes a genuine exchange of views. Certainly there was no enthusiasm at all amongst British officials for such matters as exchange rate targeting - they considered that if there were prudent policies focused on sustainable budget balances and stable, fairly low inflation then this maximises the chances of stable exchange rates.

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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