The UK, France, Germany, US, Japan, Italy and Canada form the Group of seven (G7) and with Russia the Group of eight (G8). In addition the European Union, represented by the Commission, is a member of G7 and G8.
The G8 Information Centre
How did it begin?
In 1975 French President Giscard d'Estaing proposed an informal gathering of six heads of government in Rambouillet. He envisaged frank discussions in a private and informal setting – the focus was on how to react to the first oil crisis and the ensuing recession.
Rambouillet was followed by a second Summit in Puerto Rico in 1976 when Canada joined the original six. The European Union, represented by the Commission, was added in 1977.
There were no further changes to the membership until the 1990s. The British Prime Minister, John Major, invited President Gorbachev to join G7 leaders at the end of the 1991 London Summit and Russian participation has gradually been formalised since then. The first full G8 Summit was in Birmingham in 1998, when the UK held the presidency, although some issues (in the international financial sphere) remain the preserve of the G7.
Who decides the Summit host and presidency?
G7/8 Summits have taken place each year since the Rambouillet meeting in 1975, normally over a weekend in early summer. The Summit is hosted by a rotating Presidency. Following on from Rambouillet the rotation has been France, US, UK, Germany, Japan, Italy and Canada, with the new Presidency beginning each January. Russia will assume the Presidency and host her first G8 summit in 2006, in St. Petersburg. As well as hosting the Summit the Presidency hosts most of the preparatory and follow-up meetings, is responsible for overall co-ordination and has considerable discretion over the agenda.
The most recent summit was held in June 2002 in Kananaskis, Alberta, Canada. The next will be in June 2003 in Evian-les-bains, when France holds the Presidency. The UK will next host in 2005.
Canadian Presidency website (Alberta, June 2002)
Summit representatives: Sherpas and Sous-Sherpas
Heads are represented at the cycle of preparatory meetings by ‘Sherpas’ – personal representatives who pave the way to the Summit, negotiating the agenda with G8 partners. The UK Sherpa is Jeremy Heywood, Principle Private Secretary to the Prime Minister. The set up varies from country to country, but the Sherpa should be able to speak on behalf of his Head. Sherpas meet roughly every two months in the run-up to the Summit to prepare the agenda and a couple of times between the Summit and the end of the year to oversee implementation. Sherpas are supported by three groups of officials who prepare subsets of the Summit agenda, as well as the agendas for Finance and Foreign Ministers, who meet shortly before the Summit each year at G7 and G8 respectively. Finance Sous-Sherpas prepare the finance/economic agenda for Heads and Finance Ministers. Foreign Affairs Sous-Sherpas develop a range of cross-cutting themes for the Summit, carry out detailed work in certain areas as delegated by Sherpas and review progress on previous G8 initiatives. Foreign Ministry Political Directors prepare the regional and security issues for the Summit and Foreign Ministers meeting.
What themes are discussed?
The Summits were originally know as Economic Summits and there was a clear focus on global economic issues. The G8 agenda has since widened to incorporate socio-economic (development; financial crime), political (Kosovo; non-proliferation; conflict prevention), security, and environmental themes. In the 1970s the emphasis was on international financial issues and responding to the two oil crises. In the 1980s the GATT and coming WTO rounds featured, as did the increasing importance of the development agenda. The 1990s began with a focus on the post Cold War Reconstruction of Eastern Europe and attention then turned to integration of Russia into the global economy. Most recently the agenda has been dominated by the question of how to respond to globalisation, with cross-cutting issues like development, environment and international crime and terrorism increasingly eroding the barriers between domestic and international policies.
The widening agenda has led to a series of G7/8 Ministerial meetings in addition to the pre-Summit meetings of G8 Foreign Ministers and G7 Finance Ministers. Depending on the requirement other Ministerial groupings meet on a more or less regular basis, often in the margins of other international gatherings. These have at various times included environment, development, employment, science and justice and home affairs ministers. Expert groups on subjects ranging from counter-terrorism to climate change have been created to deal with specific Summit mandates and provide continuity between Ministerials.
Pluses and Minuses?
The G8 has remained informal and light on bureaucracy: it has no secretariat, no central office and no formal rules of procedure. Coordination is in the hands of the rotating Presidency and the Sherpa system provides direct links to Heads. On the plus side this means that the G8 is able to react quickly to events while reflecting the foreign policy and domestic concerns of the world’s most powerful leaders. Notable successes have included breakthroughs on debt, climate change and non-proliferation. The weaknesses are a poor institutional memory, the absence of an in-built mechanism for following-up or implementing agreements, and the lack of a formal consultative mechanism. Nevertheless, successive leaders have consistently resisted the temptation to create a Secretariat, which they believe would swamp the process in bureaucracy.