Leading article: Welcome, if modest, support for the Arab Spring

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However diligently prepared, G8 summits have a history of being derailed by unforeseen crises or descending into squabbles that have then to be patched up in a delayed and elliptical communiqué. Birmingham in 1998 was dominated by alarm over India's nuclear tests.

Tony Blair's star turn at Gleneagles was overshadowed by the London bombings. In 2009, Silvio Berlusconi diverted attention from the controversies swirling around him by moving proceedings to the earthquake-stricken town of l'Aquila.

This year's meeting in Deauville was not thrown off course, but it did seem a particularly low-key, almost perfunctory, affair. In part, this was because France, emulating Canada last year, set out to host a summit without frills, compatible with the general mood of austerity – something it almost managed, notwithstanding Nicolas Sarkozy's instinctive showmanship. In part, too, it was because international news was dominated by the capture of the fugitive Bosnian Serb leader, Ratko Mladic. And, of course, there was the fall-out from the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal and the distraction of who will now run the IMF.

That this year's summit was narrower in scope than many have been, and attracted fewer headlines, lends support to the argument that the grouping is on the wane. Any global club that excludes the leaders of the big emerging economies – China, India and Brazil – is doomed to look increasingly like a throwback to an earlier age. It is surely time to make the more representative G20 the pre-eminent international group for contemplating the future of the world.

Yet the relatively narrow focus of this year's summit may have been an advantage. There had been time for the inspiring developments in North Africa to be digested and for agreement of a co-ordinated, if modest, plan of action. The extension of the remit of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to invest in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere – with a view to doing for this region what it has successfully done for central and eastern Europe – is a positive step. So, too, is the agreed package of assistance from G8 governments. It falls short, at present, of coming close to being a Marshall Plan for the Arab Spring, but if it were to evolve along those lines, that would be no bad thing.

Joint and bilateral meetings about Libya also produced a positive outcome. While Britain and France had signalled an increase in military pressure on the Gaddafi regime, with the announced deployment of Apache helicopters, the emphasis at the G8 was on diplomacy. Confusion about whether Russia had offered a mediating role appeared to lie more in definitions than substance.

With all eight, including Russia, agreeing that Gaddafi has now lost all legitimacy – and the defection of the head of the Libyan central bank disclosed, by coincidence or design, just before the summit communiqué was published – the prospects for a peaceful denouement in Libya have improved. This summit took place with less fanfare than some in recent memory, but by concentrating on a few financial and diplomatic nuts and bolts, G8 leaders might in the end have achieved more.

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