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G8 Summit: Diplomatic mystery now a lumbering media circus

IT'S THAT time of year again. A weekend in early summer, an agreeable provincial city of one of the world's richest countries, and international summitry is the order of the hour. Naples, Halifax in Nova Scotia, Lyons, Denver and Birmingham, England, have in recent years been singled out by the diplomatic wheel of fortune to host the annual G-7 or G-8 confabulation. This time, it's Cologne's turn.

I speak of these matters with a certain, if somewhat spurious, authority, having covered the very first of the species, held in Rambouillet, France in 1975. In truth, "covered" is too strong a word. The meeting was conceived by the then French President, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, as a chance for the leaders of the most powerful Western countries, unencumbered by armies of officials and journalists, to discuss the problems of the hour in an informal, relaxed setting.

None of us were allowed near the chateau where it was held, nor did there seem much point in trying to do so. There were no press conferences, no final statement. Just five countries - Britain, Germany, France, Japan and the US - took part. No one knew for sure even what was being discussed. But something had to be written.

I was working for the Financial Times in Paris and remember my foreign editor praising me for "an elegant piece of fiction" which adorned the front page the next day. And harmless fiction it was. But already the rot was setting in. Within a year or two Italy and Canada had crashed the club. The G-5 became the G-7, and what had been intended as unscripted "fireside chats" turned into lumbering diplomatic circuses. Platitudinous final statements running to half a dozen pages were sketched out months in advance by the "sherpas", or high officials. Invariably however the gatherings were hijacked by the hot issue of the moment. In 1998 in Birmingham it was the Indian and Pakistani nuclear testing. This time, obviously, it will be Kosovo.

And every summit has its sideshows. I have a particularly fond recollection of Venice 1980, when the US Secret Service sent frogmen and a Navy frigate up the Grand Canal in the interests of protecting Jimmy Carter. Then there was the 1985 G-7 in Bonn, co-inciding with the 40th anniversary of the end of World War Two, when it was belatedly discovered that some Nazi SS officers were buried in a cemetery at Bitburg which Ronald Reagan was due to visit.

And now they are Eight. The first invitation to Russia (or the Soviet Union as it then was) was extracted by Mikhail Gorbachev who came to London in 1991 to plead for Western aid to shore up the country that was unravelling around him.

Subsequently Russia's presence has mostly been an irrelevance - but not this year, given the argument over its role in Kosovo. Indeed, much of the suspense here in Cologne surrounds Boris. Will he appear as promised on Sunday; and if so, in what mood, indeed in what state?

In the meantime the great city of the Rhineland is braced to do its duty at these annual diplomatic Olympics. Soldiers have turned the city into an armed camp. Welcome banners in half a dozen languages flutter in the streets, and effusive articles appear about the summit furniture (in this case the circular pearl white polyester table 11ft, across, a giant futuristic mushroom at which our leaders will deliberate.

At which point however, as always, the uncomfortable question arises. Is the fuss worth it? Is this how to run the world? Now the leaders themselves understandably rather enjoy the summits - members of the most select club on the planet which bestows an aura of statesmanship upon every one of them. Alas, the results almost never match up. Two things, surely, must change.

The first is the format. Giscard d'Estaing had it right: the calendar is littered with setpiece summits. If the G-8 ones are to have value, it is as opportunities, as the Americans say, to "shoot the breeze;" to compare notes, exchange ideas, and talk problems through. No decisions will be taken, and none should be expected. And perhaps we are edging back to first principles, thanks to Tony Blair. Appalled by his first G-7, the bloated extravaganza of Denver 1997, he scaled matters down in Birmingham. Foreign and finance ministers did not attend, and more free time was built into the leaders' schedule - only for part of it to be spent watching the FA Cup Final on television.

Then there is the question of who attends. The make up is similar to the permanent membership of UN Security Council. If this is the board of directors of The World PLC, its make-up is hopelessly skewed. As at the UN, the Western and European powers are over-represented.

Should not China, by some measures already the second economic power on the planet and touted as the next superpower, be in Cologne? And what about India?If they was a G-9 or G-10, we really would have something to write about.

But who knows, maybe we will. Two genuinely historical issues are on the agenda. Maybe this summit will set in motion a lasting reconstruction of the Balkans. And perhaps the rich countries will face up to their moral duty and reduce the burden of debt crushing the world's poorest countries.

More likely though, the platitudes will prevail, and Cologne 1999, like its predeccessors, will go down as a pleasant and inconsequential time, had by all.