G7 summitry – reborn but still the same

Myths and symbolism have accompagnied the fundamental transformation of the gathering.

There’s no way back to the roots for the G7. Initiated 40 years ago by the leaders of France and West Germany, the group was meant to provide an informal gathering for an off the record exchange on current macro-economic issues – at the time these were the major economic readjustments after the oil price shock, rising structural unemployment and a floating US-dollar. Four decades later, the G7 has been fundamentally transformed from an almost private meeting of the leaders of the world’s richest industrial nations into a major public diplomacy spectacle, attracting thousands of media representatives.

In its transformation, G7 summitry has created myths, which have added to the hype around the gathering, and at the same time constrain its impact. First among them is the fascination with oligopolies, the myth about the effectiveness of a small group of truly powerful actors in a complex and convoluted multilateral world, which has increasingly shaped the perception of G7 summits after the fall of the Berlin wall. Before 1989, the group evidently gathered the largest concentration of GDP but did not reflect the overall power structure of world affairs. Nowadays, it doesn’t represent either.

G7 summits are intergovernmentalism in the purest form, not even based on a binding agreement among its participants.

After 1989, G7 summits came to be seen as a layer of global governance, another myth, because the G7 lacked the legitimacy, the decision-making structure, and the tools for implementation. Its summits are intergovernmentalism in the purest form, not even based on a binding agreement among its participants. As the perceived significance of its proceedings rose and public attention multiplied, the letters of intent otherwise known as G7 communiqués turned into word-wriggling, which required a process structure beyond the initially small group of sherpas: sous-sherpas, working groups, ministerials, commissions, outreach events, and more have become regular part of the machinery. Repeatedly, reaching consensus among the leaders per se has not materialized into action. Therefore, modern G7 diplomacy seeks to establish follow-up processes in order to at least keep some momentum on specific dossiers.

Summit symbolism, finally, has probably shaped the G7 more than anything else, not least because it links the myths of power and governance to a narrative of inclusion and global responsibility. This is how the formerly “soft” agenda of global issues such as development, climate, and global health became a constant topic of G7 summits. This is how Russia became invited to the G8 format (with the G7 still continuing outside of the formal summits), and finally,  this is how the G20 summit came into existence in 2008, building on the earlier G20 of the finance ministers.  To remain at the centre of a rapidly changing world, the G7 practiced co-optation, engaging former adversaries, emerging powers and key states of international order to its formats.

With a G7 3.0 it seems that Western powers are finally moving away from the fiction of inclusion in favour of normative cohesion.

Russia’s aggressive turn against Ukraine debunked that myth, forcing G7 leaders to decide between different organizing principles: power vs. values. The 2014 summit in Brussels, replacing the originally planned G8 summit in Sotchi, marked the departure. Thus, the Elmau Summit in 2015 saw the second rebirth of the G7 after its transformation into a spectacle, this time as a community of democracies, of responsibility, and of shared values. With a G7 3.0 it seems that Western powers are finally moving away from the fiction of inclusion in favour of normative cohesion. The informal structure of global governance is becoming more compartmentalized, which may also lead to a disintegration of the G20 down the line.

Against this background of change, on the surface of the event, the Elmau Summit displayed a remarkable symbol of continuity. Perfectly organised in the picturesque setting of the Northern Alps, inhabited by indigenous people wearing peculiar costumes practicing rather unique rituals, accompanied but not in any way disrupted by some mostly orderly rallies against hyper-globalisation and high-level politics, the summit dealt with a well-balanced agenda. Topics ranged from global economy and foreign policy crises to climate change to neglected tropical diseases, women entrepreneurs, the protection of marine environment, and reconstruction in Nepal. There was agreement on a number of well-meaning commitments phrased in the usual rhetoric. On the face of it, Elmau was a complete success for the German presidency.

In terms of political substance, the outcomes are less obvious; transparency in modern day summitry applies more to the surface level of the meeting. In a thoroughly orchestrated setting, there may not be much space left to build deeper understanding between top-level political leaders. The important information, however, is still to be found in the few hours of small circle debate, the bilaterals and informal talks on the margins.

The staging at Elmau underlined Merkel's role as a key political leader beyond her own ranks.

From that perspective, the summit offers a number of take-aways to leaders, both in terms of managing public expectations and ascertaining policy positions. For Chancellor Angela Merkel, Elmau offered a colourful opportunity to shift the public view of transatlantic relations in a subtle way. Not addressing any of the conflictual issues of the past years, Elmau presented an image of the friendly state of German-American and transatlantic relations, diffusing the widespread view of a partnership in crisis of trust. Barack Obama’s advice to David Cameron to remain part of the EU was certainly welcome. The summit allowed Merkel to communicate her Eurozone strategy and the policy vis-à-vis Greece. Not least, the staging at Elmau underlined her role as a key political leader beyond her own ranks.

In substantive terms, three issues stand out on the balance sheet of the Chancellor. First, the discussions on Russia and Ukraine reaffirmed Merkel in her approach to Moscow. No stronger idea or better plan on how to deal with the Kremlin was voiced at the summit. Support for Ukraine was unanimous, but also conditional. The G7 followed Merkel’s line of pushing Kyiv harder to focus on political and economic reforms. The forming of a “support group” of the G7 ambassadors decided at Elmau should also be understood as setting up a pressure group for reform.

Secondly, on the issue of sanctions against Russia, the message from Elmau was unambiguous. They will remain as long as Russia’s policy vis-à-vis Ukraine does not change, the provisions of the Minsk II agreement being the yardstick. This will be an important message in itself as the EU prepares for its debate on the future of sanctions this month. The G7 consensus will weigh in heavily, when some member states may seek change of the sanctions regime for political or tactical purposes. Reassured by the Elmau summit, Merkel and Hollande are likely to overrule objections from individual member states and move on with the vast majority of the EU.

The Europeans have won another battle on climate change at Elmau, lead mostly by Merkel and Hollande.

Thirdly, the Europeans have won another battle on climate change at Elmau, lead mostly by Merkel and Hollande. To be sure, it was a struggle over words and non-binding commitments, but it reassured the EU’s position and raised expectations on other parties at the COP21 climate summit in Paris in the fall. With the term “decarbonisation”, a buzz word of the environmental debate has found its way into summit language, a known trigger to win praise from the global NGO community. The full wording of the G7 communiqué still allows wide interpretations. The time frame is long, the general commitments will need to be followed up by national targets and plans, which has frequently been a source of disillusionment in the aftermath of summit meetings. The financing mechanism for developing countries had already been decided years ago but did not move forward. Elmau reiterated the pledge, raised the numbers and invited investments of private money. None of which will speed up implementation in itself, but the idea has received some new life, at least.

In terms of domestic politics, Merkel reactivated her reputation as “climate chancellor” from her first term in office. Her government could use some tailwind on “Energiewende”, the German model of decarbonisation, pushed ahead without much coordination within the EU. Its implementation struggles with the twists of the markets, temporarily increasing the share of coal-fired power plants and driving up consumer prices; it deeply affects major electricity providers and, not least, is delayed by political controversies over energy infrastructure. Regarding the latter, the climate symbolism of Elmau will face its litmus test immediately: opposition by state politicians and the public to the construction of major new power lines to supply the south with wind energy from the north is strongest in Bavaria.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

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