Let’s hear it for Silvio Berlusconi. A bargain basement Benny Hill he may be, but the prime minister fonder of cavorting with young women than keeping promises to the world’s poorest countries has helped expose what a cynical shambles the G8 summit has become.
Officials say that this year’s shindig in L’Aquila will be the most pointless ever – and, believe me, that is saying something. It is up to the host country to set the tone for the meeting, which involves preparing an agenda and chivvying the other, reluctant, members of the club to sign up to a high-minded initiative to eradicate poverty from Africa, tackle climate change and fight the good fight against protectionism by completing the Doha round of trade talks. The G8 commitment to these plans lasts as long as it takes the motorcade to hightail it back to the airport.
Berlusconi’s failure to play the game has so embarrassed the other G8 members that the White House has taken the unprecedented step of working up an agenda on Italy’s behalf. There is talk of a new initiative aimed at increasing food security. On past form, only two things can be certain about this initiative: G8 countries will either not pay up or will take the money from an existing budget.
Nevertheless, it is a sign of just how bad things are this year that the other members of the G8 are encouraging speculation that Italy might suffer the humiliation of being replaced by Spain – a country that is increasing its aid budget rather than cutting it, and has a higher per-capita GDP than this year’s host. This is unlikely to happen, although Berlusconi has done himself no favours by asking his guests to stump up to help rebuild L’Aquila after April’s earthquake while cutting Italy’s bilateral aid budget by 56%.
But why stop at Italy? Most other G8 leaders use the summit as a glorified photo-opportunity; Berlusconi has simply stopped pretending that the annual talkfest serves any real purpose. His supreme indifference to having any meaningful discussion has the beneficial side-effect of forcing the G8 to justify its own existence. That’s not going to be easy. The growing importance of China, India and Brazil means that the centre of gravity for economic decision-making is already shifting to the G20, a body on which the bigger developing countries are represented.
If the G8 is to survive, it will have to find a niche and lead by example. The summit leaders represent countries that account for 80% of aid to poor countries. That explains why the most memorable summits of recent years – Birmingham in 1998, Cologne in 1999 and Gleneagles in 2005 – were dominated by development. After much arm-twisting by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the G8 agreed at Gleneagles to a package that involved debt relief, an opening-up of western markets to exports from poor countries, and a doubling of aid budgets.
Unless there is a marked improvement over the next 12 months, the Gleneagles accord will be broken. Too many countries are still burdened with unpayable debts, and G8 countries are way off course with their aid pledges. As for trade, the Doha round has become the international community’s version of the Jarndyce v Jarndyce case in Bleak House; never-ending and so complicated that the parties have quite forgotten how it started in the first place.
Brown, to his credit, is trying to get the G8 to raise its game. He wants a league table to show how well each country is doing in meeting its Gleneagles aid pledges (Britain, perhaps unsurprisingly, would come top). The portents are not good. The G8 countries like making promises but they are less keen on being held to account for the outcomes. The next country to host the G8 will be Canada, where the prime minister, Stephen Harper, cares as little about development as Berlusconi does. Why worry, say some? The idea of a fireside chat between world leaders might have been a good idea when Giscard d’Estaing dreamt it up in 1975, but it’s now time to face reality and scrap the G8 altogether.
This is a compelling argument, but there are two reasons why it is worth giving the G8 a brief stay of execution. The first is that there are, whatever the high-profile critics say, plenty of examples of where aid has worked. Even at a time of tight public finances, a promised $50bn increase in aid is chickenfeed, particularly when set against defence budgets, but will save many lives and put children in school.
The second is that the G8’s failure is a blow to international co-operation at a time when it has never been more needed. Pascal Lamy, the director-general of the World Trade Organisation, says if the global community can’t deliver on “easy” issues like trade and development there is scant hope it can tackle the much thornier issues of global warming or re-regulation of financial markets.
Lamy is right, even though a Doha deal looks (marginally) more likely than a revitalised G8. Like the League of Nations it is the wrong body with the wrong members at the wrong time. Italy last hosted a summit eight years ago when an anti-G8 protester was killed by riot police in Genoa. There is unlikely to be much of a demo this year, but none is needed. The G8 is quite capable of destroying itself.
Larry Elliott, the Guardian’s economics editor.