By Shada Islam*
US President Donald Trump’s decision to postpone the G-7 meeting until September and invite Russia, India, South Korea and Australia to the gathering may have made the headlines. So did German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s announcement that she wouldn’t be going to the summit if it was held at the end of June. Neither move really matters. Let’s just make sure the next G-7 encounter is the last one.
It’s up to Europe to draw the curtains on what is arguably one of the world’s most over-hyped, over-reported and underwhelming annual non-event.
The G-7’s demise cannot be blamed entirely on ‘America First’ policies, although Trump’s anti-multilateralism rants as well as tariffs and insults heaped on G-7 friends have accelerated the decline.
Once upon a time the G-7 mattered. Set up in the 1970s when the US, Italy, Japan, Canada, France, Germany, and Britain dominated the world economy, the G-7 shaped and led the agenda. In 1998, when Russia joined (only to be kicked out 15 years later over its annexation of Crimea), Asia was in financial and economic meltdown.
Times have changed. With the rise of China, India, Brazil and others, the G-7 has little relevance. In fact, it’s been on life support for years. Avid reporters may still eagerly devour bland summit statements, magically turning them into news reports for bored editors, but nobody – not even stock markets – really care.
Reader, I know. I’ve been there. For years, I was among the thousands of journalists tasked with the responsibility of covering G-7 summits. We traipsed around from Okinawa to Genoa, Kananaskis, St Petersburg, Evian and Gleneagles, desperately searching for information – any little titbit from any little spokesperson – that we could file to newsrooms.
Anti-globalisation protestors may have suspected evil purpose but we knew the truth: these were phoney gatherings – and like the chic ‘first ladies’ hobbling around on towering heels, they were just for show.
At some meetings, the high and mighty G-7 summiteers did invite their rising power counterparts for an after-lunch coffee. Those were the press briefings we really hankered after.
The G-7 mix of confrontation and frustration is wonderfully captured in the much-published photograph of the 2018 summit in Canada with German Chancellor Angela Merkel standing over a glaring Trump as other G-7 leaders look on in total despair.
The truth is simple: the G-7 is a relic of the past, clueless, powerless and out of touch with the requirements of a rapidly-changing and now very disrupted world. Europe must be brave enough to pull the plug.
As countries struggle to find the right tools for a rapid economic recovery, to create jobs and come to the aid of the most vulnerable, the world needs wise and inclusive economic governance. Here are some options the EU’s bold and the brave should explore:
First, give the G-20 some much-needed oomph. The global nature of the current crisis and the search for new, innovative ways to accelerate recovery require the combined guidance and leadership of old and new economic powers, a fact also hammered home by Anabel González, Costa Rica’s former trade minister and one of the world’s most respected trade experts.
As it stands today, the G-20 is not fit for purpose. Countries in the group have different interests, diverging politics and are at different levels of development. But they are linked by the common quest for a quick economic rebound. Lacking enforcement tools, the G-20 cannot overhaul policies of sovereign nations, but collective peer pressure and some public chiding can promote greater alignment. As Giles Merritt underlined in a recent Frankly Speaking, the G-20 also needs a permanent secretariat.
Second, COVID-19 will spur regionalism, boosting the role and heft of regional blocs. Asian nations – like Europeans –have always traded more with each other than with others. COVID-19 has accelerated that shift, says Parag Khanna, author of “The Future is Asian”. As the recovery and reopening are likely to be incremental and regional, with governments implementing stimulus policies to boost domestic consumption and near-shoring supply chains, regional blocs will become ever more important.
The EU’s track record with regional groups is mixed. Relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have improved rapidly in recent years but plans for a strategic partnership are on hold due to disputes over palm oil. Free trade deals have been signed with Singapore and Vietnam, however, and an EU-ASEAN free trade agreement (FTA) is envisaged. A much-vaunted EU-Mercosur trade pact is in limbo over environmental concerns and the EU’s controversial Economic Partnership Agreements (EPA) with African regional groups remain as divisive as ever.
Third, it’s time to invest more energy and effort into using the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) as a pro-active geopolitical tool. Established in 1996, ASEM brings together 53 key Asian and European players who meet regularly in different formats – summits, ministerials and experts-level– to discuss issues as diverse as foreign policy, security, trade and religion. Sadly, ASEM has underperformed over the years although recent conversations on connectivity have given it enhanced relevance.
Meeting in Cambodia in November, ASEM leaders should have a real conversation on the summit’s theme of “strengthening multilateralism for shared growth”, sending out a strong message on re-crafting global governance rules to reflect new realities. These include the growing popularity and need for plurilateral deals to tackle divisive issues like e-commerce and worker mobility, especially for health workers. ASEM’s long-standing acceptance of ‘issue-based leadership’ offers another way forward at times when consensus cannot be found.
Walking away from the G-7 won’t be easy. Being part of an elite and exclusive club is prestigious. And nobody likes ceding privilege. But there are more relevant and credible options and extraordinary times demand extraordinary measures. G-7 aficionados, the party is over.
*Shada Islam, Director of Europe and Geopolitics at Friends of Europe, a Brussels-based think tank