Leading Article: Until we meet again in '93

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The Independent Online
SEVEN men meet for a chat. Around them circle officials who have prepared, advised and drafted, and now wait nervously lest the seven forget their instructions. Swarming outside is a larger circle of journalists hungry for news. Around the whole event is an outer ring of security men to protect it from terrorists and crazies. At the end the host at the centre of these concentric circles reads out a cautiously worded statement that adds little to the sum of public knowledge and has almost no visible effect.

Is there any value to it all? Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. The idea of the G7 summit meetings, the latest of which ended in Munich yesterday, was that the leaders of the seven richest countries in the world should get together for informal personal talks in which they would rise above bureaucratic obstacles to reach agreements that would guide the world economy towards better days. Yet the last time they achieved anything concrete was in 1979, when they agreed on sharing arrangements in response to the oil crisis. More influence on global economics was exerted by finance ministers meeting in secret in 1985 and 1987.

As in Munich, most meetings issue statements of opinion or intent on a range of subjects. Where these are economic, they have little effect because national economic policies are either constrained by domestic pressures or determined by broad trends in the world economy. When the leaders stray beyond economics, they tend to enter territory already occupied by other bodies.

So it was this week. To have done its job properly, the meeting should at least have pushed the stalled Gatt negotiations to a conclusion. John Major rightly gave this issue the publicity it deserved. But it was obvious all along that President Mitterrand would not risk further inflaming his farmers before the referendum on the Maastricht treaty in September. So agreement will have to wait until it is over. The strong statement on former Yugoslavia was useful but could have been made just as well at this week's meeting of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe or at the United Nations. Likewise, aid for Boris Yeltsin could have been dealt with just as effectively elsewhere.

If there is a defence of G7 summits it has to be the modest one that they help to focus attention on international issues; to concentrate the minds of officials who prepare them; to strengthen links among the bureaucracies involved; to put pressures on the leaders who attend them; and to send signals to the markets and industries that drive the world economy.

If the leaders announce collectively, as they did in Munich, that they 'expect' a Gatt agreement to be reached before the end of the year, they put themselves under that much more pressure to succeed (last year they merely said that the 'aim . . . should be' to agree by the end of 1991). If they announce that they are going to pursue sound monetary and financial policies until the risk of inflation recedes, it becomes somewhat more difficult for them to go home and do otherwise. By the tone and substance of their message, they influence the intangibles of international confidence and impose obligations on themselves. It is not a great way to run the world but it probably does slightly more good than harm.

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