Merkel seeks ‘deliverables’ for G8

As Germany this week puts the finishing touches to its preparations for the Group of Eight leading industrial nations’ summit in Heiligendamm, memories of Berlin’s original plans for the June gathering on the Baltic coast seem like distant history.

Last summer German officials close to Angela Merkel, chancellor, said Berlin wanted to break the pattern whereby G8 summits had taken on an ever-larger agenda.

Ms Merkel, her aides said, was determined to return the summit nearer to its original purpose, of providing an informal setting for leaders to focus on international economic issues.

Her priorities for the Heiligendamm gathering originally centred on global imbalances caused by diverging current account positions around the world, intellectual property, and the economics of energy security. The reality has turned out differently.

When Ms Merkel presented her G8 agenda to the parliament in Berlin last Thursday, it included climate change, the “future of Africa” and the need for companies to meet social and environmental standards.

Amid these topics – and meetings with 10 other invited heads of state – the G8 leaders will not have much time to discuss her original priorities.

How this shift happened says much about Ms Merkel’s political instincts, and about the G8 process itself, which has become a political and diplomatic juggernaut difficult to divert off course between one annual presidency and the next.

Germany’s top G8 organisers realised months ago that a return to the G8 origins of fireside chats on economics was not possible. Bernd Pfaffenbach, Ms Merkel’s G8 envoy, told the Financial Times in January that Berlin was compromising on its original plans.

“We want to go back to the roots of the G8. In the past very much time has been given to topics other than managing the international economy. We are realistic, however. Foreign affairs, energy and climate change issues are important as well,” he said.

“The leaders cannot just talk for one and a half days about how to reach more balanced economic growth.”

Why they cannot do so is linked to the growing complexity of the international political economy, where issues such as energy and climate cut across what are seen as traditional G8 themes. In addition, foreign affairs – such as the Lebanon crisis that consumed leaders’ time at last year's Russia summit – is long accepted as a key G8 focus, given the opportunities for consultations provided by what are still relatively rare meetings.

The leaders also feel pressed to deliver tangible results from what have become elaborate – and expensive – jamborees. Talk about economic imbalances delivers few clear results, the argument goes, while promises such as aid for Africa show – on paper at least – that the leaders have invested their time well.

Ms Merkel’s serious-minded style means she is sometimes less inclined to give in to such pressures.

Yet she has realised, aides argue, that a G8 summit that leaves its mark has advantages. She has exploited the international political momentum behind two issues in particular – the need for action on climate change and continued calls for the rich world to help Africa – to inject some urgency into her Heiligendamm agenda.

On climate, she hopes the recent string of important scientific reports will help forge new unanimity among G8 members, although this has sparked serious tensions with Washington.

On Africa, she has used pre-summit meetings with African leaders and celebrity activists such as rock stars Bono and Bob Geldof to show her own personal engagement – revealing a potentially appealing side to German voters.

As Mr Pfaffenbach admitted recently, Germany’s summit has to have “deliverables” that can be presented to the world’s press as achievements.

It would have been less easy to conjure up such goodies had Ms Merkel stuck to her original idea.

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