G8: Thirty years of G8 comings and goings

'If it's 2005 it must be Gleneagles...'
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Indy Politics

How different it was when it began. Back in 1975, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the French president, thought it would be a good idea for the leaders of the most powerful industrial countries to discuss the disruption of the world economy by the first oil price shock.

M. Giscard d'Estaing wanted to keep the gathering small and intimate, far from the press and encumbering armies of officials. And so it was. Only heads of government attended, accompanied by their foreign and economics ministers and one trusted aide to make sure it all ran smoothly. The summit at the chateau of Rambouillet near Paris involved just six countries (and it would have been just five had Italy not kicked up an almighty fuss).

There was no press centre. The closing communiqué was brief and bland, and coverage was generally left to correspondents in Paris, who wisely remained there. "That was an elegant piece of fiction," my foreign editor said after I had scraped together a feeble story – praise indeed, given the circumstances.

This week, the linear descendant of that first summit takes place at Gleneagles. The "spirit of Rambouillet", however, will not be much in evidence. Admittedly, the inflation in the number of participant countries has been modest, from six to eight. The original six of the US, Britain, France, the old West Germany, Japan and Italy have been joined by Canada (in 1976) and by post-Soviet Russia (in various stages over the 1990s). The EU (then the EC) has been a regular since 1977.

But the "fireside chat" formula of the chateau in the woods is a distant memory. The capricious gods of journalism decreed I would also cover the most recent G8, in June 2004. The leaders met at Sea Island, a swanky coastal resort in Georgia. As at Rambouillet 29 years earlier, the media was kept 80 miles from the action, in Savannah. But this time, we came in our thousands.

There was a gigantic press centre in an exhibition hall on the north bank of the Savannah river. The security measures were so suffocating they verged on the ridiculous. The leaders brought small armies of officials with them. There were video news conferences and mountains of press releases.

Even the sherpas – the officials who do the preparatory work and "climb the slopes of the summit" – have multiplied. The term, one indisputable legacy of the G8 process, has entered the international diplomatic lexicon. But now there are under-sherpas and assistant sherpas, so unwieldy has the process become.

And for what? A year on, I've all but forgotten what happened at Sea Island. They discussed a "Greater Middle East Initiative", if I remember rightly, and there was some skirmishing over foreign aid and debt relief. But the highlight for the lightly taxed scribes was Savannah itself – just as the organisers intended. Some of Fleet Street's finest entered into the spirit of things by spending much of their time on a golf course.

Gleneagles will be more of the same. The media horde will be based in Edinburgh, with all the activists who heed Bob Geldof's call to descend on the town to lobby for debt relief. Whatever the leaders agree will have been scripted in advance. Beyond argument, however, the local golf courses are unsurpassed.

But if G8 summits are a fixture of the diplomatic calendar, and their visible achievements amount to little, the media fuss – and the protesters' ire – is understandable. If there is any such thing as a "world government" the G8 is it.

During the Cold War, the summits helped preserve a united Western front against Moscow. More recently, they have played a steering role in trade liberalisation. Of late, however, they have been pretty threadbare on other issues, such as debt relief, the environment andhealth. The summit communiqués may teem with good intentions, but they have barely addressedtricky questions, such as the advanced world's web of export subsidies and quotas that makes it more difficult for developing countries to compete.

But do not write off the G8 entirely. The summits may have turned into bloated, scripted extravaganzas. But they are just the visible tip of an iceberg of ministerial and officials' meetings. These take place almost year-round, little noticed and probably all the more productive for that.

In the beginning, the focus waseconomic, and the format still partially reflects that. Russia may be a full member, but when the finance ministers discuss foreign-exchange developments, the group reverts in practice to the old G7. Happily, even though the communiqués are finalised weeks in advance, G8 summits are never entirely predictable.

I have covered eight summits now, and the drama has always happened outside the formal conference chamber. Venice, 1980, was the most colourful (US navy launches and frogmen guarding the Grand Canal) and the most venomous. Jimmy Carter remembered his bilateral session with an openly scornful Helmut Schmidt as "the most unpleasant meeting I ever had with a foreign leader". Five years later, the show had moved to Bonn, by which time Helmut Kohl had replaced Schmidt as West German chancellor. But the real controversy surrounded President Reagan's visit to a cemetery where, it transpired, SS storm troopers were buried. In 1998 in Birmingham, the summit was hijacked by the near-simultaneous nuclear tests of India and Pakistan, of which the various G8 intelligence services had had no wind whatsoever.

A year later, in Cologne, the talk was of help for the Third World. But Kosovo dominated, and a trumpeted advance on debt forgiveness came to nothing. Of Kananaskis, Canada, in 2002, I remember nothing. Sea Island was most notable for an uneasy post-Iraq truce between George Bush and Jacques Chirac, sealed by kind words from the French leader for la cuisine américaine.

Over the years, the G8 has evolved, from six to eight, and from informal get-together to ponderous klieg-lit set piece. But the format now looks dangerously ossified. It is not clear that the G8 does anything that could not be done in other forums, such as the UN, the OECD, or Nato, or in ad hoc bodies.

Vladimir Putin is scheduled to host the summit in 2006. But what is Russia, increasingly undemocratic and economically insignificant in global terms, doing in the G8 anyway? If Russia is a member, then should not China, now the world's second-largest economy by some measures, participate too? And that is to say nothing of India and Brazil, even Nigeria, whose presence would give the G8 a genuinely global feel.

Just as the UN security council reflects the world of 1945, so the G8 is a mirror of the 1970s. Its members have resisted every pressure for change, arguing – as do the five permanent veto powers at the UN – that the price of enlargement would be a loss of efficiency. But the price of doing nothing may sap the G8's credibility beyond repair.

How to speak G8: a guide to summitese, by Adrian Turpin

Appropriately Highland nickname for extreme anti-globalisation protesters. (In 1692, at Glencoe, members of Clan Campbell massacred their old enemies the MacDonalds – get it?)

Diplomat-speak for strings attached to loans.

One step away from a fistfight.

* G1
The United States. Outsiders need not apply for membership.

Fashionable term for the Third World. The poorest nations seem to have gone through as many rebrandings as the Post Office – and to as little effect.

To use environmental window-dressing to disguise a lack of genuine progress, such as the civil-service memo proposal for a "zero-carbon red carpet for the leaders to walk on".

Heavily Indebted Poor Country. As in the HIPC Initiative announced by G8 in 1996 – and still being haggled over today.

Negotiating tactic to deal with an unacceptable offer by batting the ball back in the opponent's court – for example: "This is not what we expected".

Nickname of Auchterarder, the closest village to Gleneagles. No Starbucks or McDonald's, but there is a shop run by the woman who once owned Hercules the performing bear (below).

Millennium Development Goals – targets agreed by the UN, including halving poverty by 2015, creating universal primary education and cutting child mortality.

A bad debt.

Dismissive insider-speak for the Make Poverty History brigade.

A one-to-one discussion that takes place beside the main gathering; as in: "Tony's keen to have a pull-aside with Chirac".

Poor countries competing for foreign investment by offering less regulation (such as barriers to child labour or safety laws.)

Structural Adjustment Programme – an enforced economic diet, imposed as a condition of receiving future loans or debt relief.

Personal representative of a head of state, who leads preparations for the G8. Why? Because a sherpa gets you to the summit.

Press corps game in which they try to predict cliches in the summit's final statement. Point-scoring phrases include "in a world of increasing globalisation" and "commitment to peace and prosperity".