This piece was first published in European Voice on 9 July 2009.
European diplomats should be good at organising conferences. After all, a 27-member EU gives them plenty of practice. But this week’s G8 summit, hosted by Italy, is too big and too complex. The agenda meanders from climate change to Iran, and the Italians went overboard trying to include non-G8 countries.
The 27 heads of government will have some successes to announce, most notably a $12 billion (€8.6bn) initiative to develop agriculture (designed, tellingly, by the US). But the summit will disappoint those who argue that the flexible G8 represents the future of multilateral deal-making, rather than rule-bound forums such as the United Nations. As it tries to cover more topics and include more states, the G8 is showing the strain.
Italian officials never had great ambitions. Their conclave was overshadowed by the G20 summit in London in May, which featured emerging economies such as China and India as full members, and will be overshadowed by the G20’s meeting in Pittsburgh in September, when US President Barack Obama will be in the chair. And, right now, no one takes Silvio Berlusconi’s views very seriously.
But the Italians’ difficulties are also symp-tomatic of two deeper challenges to the EU’s notion of‘effective multilateralism’.
First, while the economic crisis has stimulated Washington’s, Beijing’s and New Delhi’s interest in co-operation through the G20 and G8, both forums look too eurocentric to them. EU members account for half the G8 and quarter of the G20. In the latter, the EU has a seat alongside France, Germany, Italy and the UK – but the Netherlands and Spain also insist on attending. The ‘G+’ mechanisms seem structured to sustain Europe’s influence, even as its economic and military clout declines.
Italy’s decision to scatter G8 invitations far and wide is at least an honest effort to resolve this dilemma. Inevitably, though, it reduces the chances of efficient, focused negotiations.
The second challenge is that the Europeans frequently fail to use their influence efficiently. The run-up to the London summit was enlivened by intra-European spats, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy threatening to walk out if France’s interests were not satisfied. There was little real co-operation between the UK diplomats planning the G20 and their Italian counterparts on the G8.
Italian officials indicated that they would shape the G8 agenda to meet any requests from the Obama administration, but US officials complain that what they really want from the Europeans is some coherence – to allow more time bargaining with the Chinese and Indians, and to spend less time having to worry whether the Dutch or Italians are on side.
All sides recognise that, with the financial crisis in full swing, the first half of this year was no time to expect perfectly calibrated policymaking (though the London summit delivered far more than expected). But as the new US administration beds in and the economy stabilises, decision-makers in Washington, DC, and elsewhere are waiting to see if the Europeans can rationalise their summit diplomacy.
So the EU is in a paradoxical situation: it is simultaneously accused of having too much influence, but also of not applying that influence properly. The strategic answer is remarkably simple: the EU needs to become more coherent so that, summit by summit, the number of seats it occupies is rendered irrelevant.
Of course, this is not as simple in practice: leaders like conferences with other leaders. Even if the Lisbon treaty comes into force – adding an EU ‘foreign minister’ and a president of the European Council to the list of dignitaries at summits – leaders such as Sarkozy will want to have their say.
But Sarkozy now has a chance both to have his say and bring coherence to the EU’s stance. France will be Europe’s next G8 hosts, in 2011. It should start co-ordinating within the EU and with the Canadians, who host the 2010 G8, and the Americans, who take the reins in 2012, on how to deliver sleek, workmanlike summits that include China, India and other emerging powers as full partners – rather repeat the confusions of L’Aquila.
Richard Gowan is an associate director at New York University’s Center on International Co-operation and a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Bruce Jones is director of the Center on International Cooperation and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.