Dinners, chats and plenty of time for the Cup Final

Rupert Cornwell asks how useful these meetings are and who are they for
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The Independent Online
THIS YEAR, the British hosts promised, it would be different - and it was. The tangible results of the Group of Eight summit of leading world powers which ended in Birmingham yesterday may have been less than electrifying. But the way the occasion was organised was a change and, by common consent of the participants at least, it worked.

This weekend there has been far less of the "declaration diplomacy" which turned last summer's summit in Denver into a circus - not least thanks to the absence of foreign and finance ministers who had met, almost unnoticed, a week earlier in London.

Inevitably, the Eight issued statements about the big international issues of the moment, from Indian nuclear tests to the referendum in Northern Ireland. But the final communique ran to a mercifully brief eight pages, and the topics for discussion kept to three or four.

In other words, back to the "fireside chat" format of Rambouillet, the chateau outside Paris where President Valery Giscard d'Estaing assembled the leaders of the United States, Britain, Germany and Japan for the first such summit in 1975.

G5 has now become G8, but at Weston Park in Shropshire on Saturday the trappings were similar, with the 2,000 journalists kept outside as the heads of government went into retreat, for a relaxed review of world affairs. If anything, maybe, too relaxed.

So uncontentious were proceedings that the day's business wrapped up an hour and a half ahead of schedule - just in time, by happy chance for those who wished, to catch Arsenal and Newcastle in the FA Cup Final.

Yesterday, too, the Eight wrapped up their business an hour earlier than they were supposed to. Birmingham 98 may be remembered for India and Indonesia. More likely though it will go down as the "Cup Final" summit.

Which raises the old questions about G8 summits: are they worth it, and are the right countries represented? The leaders themselves firmly believe that chattier, less formal, arrangements work.

"This is the right way to do these things," the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said, promising that the 1999 summit in Cologne would be along similar lines - even though, if pre-election opinion polls are right, he is unlikely to be hosting it. The French and Japanese, too, professed themselves well pleased.

But having a nice time is different from having a useful time. In the end, the actual discussions, including a working dinner and the much-touted "retreat", occupied barely 10 hours of their time. The rest was banqueting, concert-going and photo-opportunities. If there were any profound and penetrating debates, no participant gave any sign of one.

If so, the case for more radical shake-up becomes more powerful. If G8 is an informal "directory" of leading powers, then Europe with four members (or five counting Russia) is grossly overrepresented. And without an Asian power, G8 no longer represents the balance of global economic power.

"Personally, I'd very much like to see China in," President Jacques Chirac said yesterday. The US and other countries who are adamant that only democracies should be allowed in the club will beg to differ.

But Tony Blair was speaking on behalf of the entire G8 when he heaped public tribute on China for its behaviour in the Asian economic crisis, and the French President went further still: "Had China devalued its currency, the effect would have been catastrophic for the whole world."

Thus, while a G9 is unlikely any time soon, Peking may be rewarded for its virtue by easier access to the World Trade Organisation, to which China has been seeking entry for 11 years.

It claims the United States has been blocking the way. If that barrier falls as a result of Birmingham, this blandest, least contentious of summit will have left its mark.