G8 Birmingham Summit 1998

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- an informal club

G8 History: climbing the summits

The origins of the present Group of Eight (G8) leading industrialised democracies lie in the Economic Summit convened by President Valery Giscard d'Estaing of France at Rambouillet in November 1975. President Giscard and Chancellor Schmidt of Germany, themselves both former Finance Ministers, were keen to establish an informal forum to discuss world economic issues, building on the 'Library Group' of Finance Ministers from Britain, France, Germany, Japan and the US (named after their meetings in the White House library), which operated during the early 1970s. This original 'Group of Five' were joined by Italy, Canada and the President of the European Commission in 1976-77. This configuration became known as the Group of Seven (G7). Meetings followed a limited agenda of economic issues, and were intended as an informal consultation session.

During the 1980s these annual meetings, which each of the seven states hosted in turn, became more formalised. Communiques, an agreed statement issued by all leaders at the conclusion of the Summit, became a standard feature, along with full media coverage. The agenda became broader with the advent of a new generation of leaders (President Reagan, President Mitterand, Chancellor Kohl, Prime Minister Thatcher), who were keen to discuss political issues alongside economics. The 1983 Williamsburg Summit, hosted by US President Ronald Reagan, saw a G7 agreement to support the deployment of US Cruise and Pershing missiles to Europe to confront new Soviet SS20s. Agreement on common opposition to global terrorism followed at Tokyo in 1986. At the same time, discussion among G7 Finance Ministers became more open and formalised, with a separate cycle of meetings through the year. The Plaza agreement of September 1985, when Finance Ministers announced common policies to curb the over-valued US dollar, was an important milestone in this process.

The end of the Cold War and the rise of global issues on the international agenda have brought further changes. During the early 1990s, the G7 Summits were preoccupied with the search for a conclusion to the Uruguay Round of GATT negotiations, finally concluded in 1993, which gave birth to the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The 1990s have also seen the gradual integration of Russia into the G8 family, reflecting democratic and economic reform in the post-Soviet era. Former President Gorbachev attended a meeting in the margins of the London Summit in 1991, and in 1992 and 1993 President Yeltsin was invited to Summits to discuss the terms of financial assistance to the Russian economy. At the Naples Summit in 1994 Yeltsin first took part in foreign policy discussions, and the Denver Summit in 1997 was called the 'Summit of the Eight', in recognition of fuller Russian involvement. The Birmingham Summit will be the first full G8 Summit.

Leaders assembled at the 'Summit of the Eight', held in Denver in June 1997. The Birmingham Summit will be the first held under the 'G8' title. (Picture: BSN)

G8 Structure: an informal club

The G8 is an informal organisation, with no rules or permanent Secretariat staff. The Presidency rotates annually among the G7 members, with each in turn taking responsibility for organising the annual Summit. The agenda for this is prepared by Sherpas (who prepare the way to the 'summit'). Sherpas are senior officials from each member country who represent their Head of State personally. They meet three or four times before the Summit to agree topics for Heads' discussion and draft the final communique. Their work is supported by separate meetings among 'Sous-Sherpas', two senior officials from each country who specialise in Foreign Affairs and Finance respectively, and Political Directors from Foreign Ministries.

In addition to these, a variety of working and expert groups meet throughout the year to prepare specialised subjects. They are ad hoc groupings, convened at the request of Sherpas to handle specific topics. The lack of bureaucracy is a virtue of the informal G8 structure. Sherpas consult freely over issues of topical interest during the year, and build up a strong working relationship among the group. They retain a close overview of all G8 issues, and enjoy close access to Heads.

The G8 has no formal secretariat of its own for implementing action. Heads agree a communique issued at the conclusion of Summits which commits each country to coordinate individual action towards common goals. G7/8 agreement can often act as a catalyst for action in other international fora.