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Denver: a mile high and one foot deep

Do the economic summits have any point? Mary Dejevsky doubts it
They are calling it the Mile High Summit, after Denver's head- lightening altitude, but even the city-proud locals concede that it risks being known for ever after as "one foot deep". So many different topics to handle, so many participants, so many distractions.

This is the Summit of The Eight, the world's economic top table, which started out at Rambouillet near Paris 22 years ago as an informal brain- storming session among consenting powerholders and has now graduated, through the addition of Canada a year later, and the half-hearted addition of the then Soviet Union at London in 1991, to The Eight.

The Eight what? You may well ask. The omission is no oversight. It is a crafty diplomatic formula designed to gloss over the reality that the participants are no longer the world's seven richest industrialised countries, but seven of the richest, plus one - Russia - which has such a terrifying degree of political and military might that it is safer not left to its own (nuclear) devices.

The Russians would dearly love this annual summit, which they saw even in Soviet times as the elite of the elite, to revert to the original Group of Seven concept, including them. A fully-fledged Group of Eight, they believe, would signal that Russia had been recognised as an equal.

As late as yesterday, however, it was unclear whether the club would approve its new member on a permanent basis. Only the final communique, due to be published today and still in contention yesterday, will clarify whether the Russians have got their way.

The Russians blamed the Japanese for obstructing their ambitions and offered them the two standbys of last-ditch Russian diplomacy: they agreed to set up a crisis hotline and said they had turned their missiles the other way. As a special favour they also promised to support Japan's bid for a seat on the UN Security Council.

But even if Russia is admitted, there is apprehension in some quarters that this could dilute the group's supposed cohesion. Already at Denver, Russia's presence is having a constricting effect. One British official let slip, for instance, that there was unlikely to be any discussion of Nato enlargement as "it would be difficult to have an open discussion about Nato with Yeltsin there".

In truth, Russian membership of a G8, which was offered to Moscow by President Clinton at Helsinki earlier this year in return for Russia's acceptance of Nato expansion, would probably only accelerate a decline into empty formalism that began almost as soon as G7 summits became institutionalised.

There is a ninth delegation, too - from the European Union - which comes in two parts: the Netherlands, because it holds the rotating presidency of the EU, and the European Commission, represented by its president, Jacques Santer, and Leon Brittan, the trade commissioner. The EU delegation, according to Mr Santer, who felt obliged to explain his appearance at Denver, is here to represent the 11 members of the EU that are not members of the G7. So now you know.

With the addition of ministers to the original line-up of top leaders came a diversification of subject matter that required the additional presence of experts, advisers and drafters. The concentration on big economic and financial issues of concern to the developed world spread out into foreign policy. This year's subjects include Bosnia, Hong Kong, Nato enlargement - dubbed "European security" to fox the Russians, the Kurile islands - dubbed Russo-Japanese co-operation, again so as not to offend Russian sensitivities, the Caucasus enclave of Nagorny-Karabakh and sub-Saharan Africa.

Of economic issues on the agenda, the emphasis has shifted from the purely financial - exchange rates and regulatory consistency - to the social and political. Among the major topics to be aired this year are the public spending implications of ageing populations, the quest to make the unemployed employable and the implications of the single European currency. It takes a lot of experts to tackle such subjects.

The delicate matter of exchange rates and trade balances, meanwhile, has been eschewed, and not just - it seems - because the current balance may be broadly acceptable. Delegates seem rather to have learned that the slightest nuance around a G7 summit can rock the markets. The quickest way for a reporter to silence an over-voluble official this year has been to ask him about exchange rates.

It is even debatable how necessary the leaders are, except for the photographs. Asked whether the recent change of government in Britain and France would change the complexion of discussion or the wording of the final documents, one (third country) official responded off-pat: "The sherpas [the civil servants guiding the way to the summit] are the same."

This year's "Mile High/Foot Deep" summit has given a new impetus to the annual calls for the whole pricey jamboree to be abandoned. More originally, one American commentator suggested rather that the guest list should be changed to invite the people who hold the real power today. Among those he proposed were organised crime bosses, high-tech whizz-kids, heads of transnational family firms (chaired by Rupert Murdoch), and the odd French lorry driver.

What he did not say was that the G7 leaders, with or without Russia, would then be free to take a long weekend away from it all to meet each other informally with no obligation to solve anything. Somewhere small, quiet and secure, perhaps - like the Chateau of Rambouillet?

Hamish McRae, Business