David Cameron was entitled to a big sigh of relief last night, perhaps even a small shot of Old Bushmills. He brought the G8 summit in on time, without disruption, and almost on song. The leaders of the world’s richest countries found enough in common to produce an accord not just on tax and trade, as promised, but on the vexed question of Syria, too.
The Prime Minister also stole some of Brussels’ thunder by announcing the start of talks on what could be a truly world-changing trade treaty between the EU and the US – an agreement, what is more, that might even persuade sceptical Britons that the UK is better in the EU than out. Not bad, it might be judged, for a bare 24 hours’ work. The landscape was easy on the eye, too – about as far from the images of the Troubles as it was possible to be.
The difficulty is that ‘twixt cup and lip there can be many a slip, and the hitches that could crop up as the EU-US trade talks get under way may be the least of them. Of more immediate concern must be the strikingly tentative nature of the declaration on tax transparency, where signatories have agreed to nothing stronger than the word “should” – as in “automatically share information to fight the scourge of tax evasion”; as in making “companies report to tax authorities what tax they pay where”; as in tax collectors and law enforcers being able to obtain information about companies and who really owns them. How about “G8 member-governments have a legal obligation to...”?
The accord on Syria was more encouraging, if only because it shifted the agenda from the thorny issue of arms for the rebels on to principles for talks involving all interested parties, and a transition scenario expressly designed to prevent an Iraq-style vacuum. Vladimir Putin’s fingerprints can be discerned on some of this. But if there is now G8 convergence on a framework for talks in Geneva, this is an advance on the Cameron-Putin slanging match in Downing Street. Perhaps the calm waters of Lough Erne had the necessary soothing effect, after all.