Gx Summitry at Crossroads


The G8-1 summit in Brussels only proves that it is tremendously difficult for the Gx to deliver when one of their main members perceives things differently. This obstructs the functioning of all Gx summits and poses a serious challenge to the Gx system as a whole; believe Prof (Dr) Jan Wouters and Sven Van Kerckhoven, as they understand the serious challenges facing the G-summitry

On June 4-5, 2014, the G8 met for the very first time without Russia since the latter’s first invitation in 1998. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March, 2014 resulted in its ouster from the summit. In a quick response to the annexation, the G8-1 leaders convened an emergency meeting in The Hague a few weeks later. They decided to hold their next summit in Brussels instead of Sochi, and to exclude Russia from the G8 meeting. The step back from the G8 to the G8-1 is surely remarkable. It shows that the other seven leaders of the G8 do not approve of unilateral annexation, and that they will not act so as to please Russia, which has been a long-time partner around the negotiating table. Some observers have applauded this swift and clear signal. However, keeping Russia in the informal G-club may be beneficial in the long run. It keeps the door open for exchanges and negotiations without the visibility that more formal organisations require. In this respect, the fierce rejection by the BICS (Brazil, India, China and South Africa) of the short-lived Australian proposal to exclude Russia from the G20 summit in Brisbane in November 2014 is a case in point.

Another major landmark at the latest G8-1 summit in Brussels was that it was hosted by the European Union. The EU has participated in the G8 meetings, but has never been included in the club as an official member. This stands in contrast to the G20, where the EU is a formal member.

The Gx’s Agendas

The agenda of the G8 meetings is traditionally set by the host country. Instead of Russia, the EU now has agenda setting powers. Other than the Russian annexation of Crimea, the agenda of the latest G8-1 summit included issues such as the global economy, trade, development and climate change.

G8-1 condemned Moscow for its ‘continuing violation’ of Ukraine’s sovereignty and confirmed their preparedness to impose further sanctions on Russia over its actions in Ukraine. On other issues, they mainly endorsed earlier decisions and declarations, often with a focus on the post-2015 agenda.

The issue of climate change got derailed somewhat by the focus on energy security and energy diversification. European Commission President José Manuel Barroso declared that ‘the less dependent we are on fossil fuels, that sometimes are in problematic areas of the world, and the more we rely on renewables and on indigenous resources, the better our security of supply will be.’ This remark indicates the intention to work towards less European dependence on Russian energy. However, by diverting attention from climate change to energy security, the climate change agenda faces the risk of virtually being dropped from the G8-1. This may upset developing countries and Least Developed Countries, who have no say around the G8-1 table and consequently often have felt left out.

Climate Change

Interestingly but also worryingly, the same is happening at the G20, the most inclusive of all G-clubs, and the self-declared ‘premier forum for economic cooperation’. Its current chair, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, seems to be willing to focus the upcoming Brisbane summit mainly on issues of interest to developed countries, in sharp contrast with the 2010 G20 meeting in Seoul. Climate change has been removed from the agenda, and the summit’s participants will mainly discuss issues pertaining to economic growth, with a focus on boosting infrastructure spending, the multilateral trading system, tax avoidance, and profit shifting. Even though these issues are of importance to all countries, developing countries have already voiced concern on the agenda. They hope that the Brisbane summit provides a last push for delivery on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which are set to expire in 2015. Although the G20 has endorsed the MDGs several times, many of its members will fail to comply with their targets. The same holds for the timid Rio+20 summit outcome, after which many had their hopes set on the G20 to provide some impetus. The fact that Abbott has already declared that he does not want the summit’s focus on economic growth to be derailed by the climate change debate, leaves very little prospect for serious advancements. This being said, the Australian focus on the Framework for Strong Sustainable and Balanced Growth does allow for a broader focus on developing countries, as does the invitation of Mauritania, Senegal and Myanmar.


The G-summitry is facing serious challenges. Let us just pinpoint three of them.

First, the G8-1 needs to consider whether or not to keep Russia at the sidelines. In order to make progress on issues such as security, Russia may be incontournable. This might be less the case for economic decision-making. The question is whether the G8-1 should be responsive to the issues of the day or rather focus on long-term global problems. The exclusion of Russia at the Brussels meeting speaks for itself. The question, however, is whether Russia itself feels the need to return to the G8. Unlike in the G20 where it is joined by the other ‘BICS’, Russia has been the only ‘developing country’ in the G8. It already expressed discontent with this situation in the past. For Russia, the G20 might just be a superior forum to gather support for its initiatives than the G8.

Second, as the G8 has a very limited membership, it might just fall short for effective action on global issues. For this purpose, the G20 might be a better platform, although some would consider it too big and diverse for real structural change. Almost six years after the first G20 summit at the heads of state and government level in Washington DC, the G20 still has to show its effectiveness outside of the realm of financial crisis management. It should demonstrate that it is more than a crisis management committee and has the ability to develop a long term strategic vision and agenda. Although the G20 may serve as a forum where political impetus can be created, its success ultimately depends on the cooperation with other institutions of global governance such as the IMF, the WTO and the OECD and, more broadly, the fabric of the United Nations system.

Third, it is unclear whether the current set-up of the Gx system is sustainable. Ultimately, the sustainability of the Gx system depends on two different but related dimensions, i.e. the input and output policy dimensions. The input policy dimension is the extent to which the members of the different G-clubs are able to reach an agreement and articulate a common vision to the world. It is clear that if the G-members join ranks, their viewpoints will be influential in the rest of the world. The G20, which gathers a higher number of more diverse countries, is arguably the best example of this. When these countries reach an agreement, their position carries serious weight. The output policy dimension refers to the extent to which the Gx members are able to realise the ambitions they set out to achieve. The track record so far has been fairly good. The Gx has provided support to a variety of issues, such as the reform of IFIs and the fight against tax havens.

However, the G clubs will also need to find solutions to problems that are important to the economies left out of the club. The Bali Package, concluded at 2013’s WTO Ministerial Conference, may prove to be an important step to further the multilateral trading system. But mega-regionalism and plurilateral, non-MFN negotiations outside the WTO framework risk leaving many countries in the cold and eroding the benefits of multilateralism. As it is exactly members of the Gx system who are negotiating these new trade and investment agreements, they bear a heavy responsibility to make sure bilateralism and multilateralism go hand in hand. For instance, deepened economic cooperation between North America and the EU (through the Canada-EU agreement and TTIP) should ideally be constructed in an open-ended way so as not to alienate the other large and smaller trading partners, and disrupt multilateral dynamics at the WTO.

The Gx summitry is at a crossroads. The G8-1 summit in Brussels only proves that it is tremendously difficult for the Gx to deliver when one of their main members perceives things differently. This obstructs the functioning of all Gx summits and poses a serious challenge to the Gx system as a whole. Global issues need to be addressed else they only become more pressing. In the next few months, the Gx summits will have to show the determination and pragmatism needed to push for a solution to these problems.

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Prof (Dr) Jan Wouters is Full Professor of International Law and International Organisations and Director of the Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies – Institute for International Law, University of Leuven.

Sven Van Kerckhoven

Sven Van Kerckhoven is Research Fellow, Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies, University of Leuven.

This contribution builds upon the closing remarks which the first author pronounced at the Pre-G7 Summit Conference '2014: from G8 to G7? The Future of the Gx System and Global Governance' in Brussels on June 2, 2014.

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