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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory