This weekend, G7 leaders will gather in a luxury resort in Bavaria to debate topics ranging from climate change to foreign policy and women’s rights. Is it really a waste of money, as its critics claim?
On a sunny afternoon in central Berlin this week, two women chatting animatedly pushed their prams along the pavement, completely oblivious of the bright orange sticker, somewhat lopsidedly stuck on a grimy lamppost: It's rallying cry to "storm the G7-Summit" ("G7-Gipfel stürmen!") and join the anti-globalization protest camp went unheeded, at least by these two, cheerful Berliners.
Others though, will make their way to the Alpine resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen which is set to host this year's annual meeting of the Group of Seven major industrialized democracies (G7) on the 7th and 8th June. Guarded by some 17,000 policemen drafted from all over Germany, leaders from Germany, France, Italy, the UK, Japan, Canada and the US - with the notable exception of Russia which was excluded from the group following its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region - for a two-day meeting in the luxury Elmau Castle.
From Ebola to South China Sea
During six informal sessions, which include a lengthy dinner session on foreign policy, they are set to discuss such wide-ranging topics as global trade, global supply chains, climate and energy, the new Millennium Development Goals, international terrorism and the myriad of crises in the Middle East, Ukraine and the South China Sea. Other topics include the controversial EU-US trade agreement TTIP, lessons learned from the Ebola crisis or neglected tropical diseases. The Greek debt crisis is also likely to form part of the discussions.
During a background press briefing on Thursday, it soon became clear that, as is usually the case during such meetings, few concrete decisions could be expected in the 15-odd page communiqué on such pressing issues as climate change or development. The G7 leaders, said a member of the German government, were unlikely to make any binding commitments during the meeting. The document, he explained however, would include a pledge to reduce hunger and the creation of a fund (the "Vision Zero Fund") to guarantee sustainable supply chains by financing preventative measures, such as fire safety measures.
It's precisely these kinds of broad resolutions that lead the summits' detractors to slam the G7 format, which was launched forty years ago, for being excessively expensive, while leading to too few concrete results. They point to other forums, like the United Nations or even G20 meetings, which include developing countries. They are, critics argue, much better placed for tackling issues that require a global response such as climate change or trade policy.
Some critics disagree with globalization more generally, while others point to the meeting's secrecy. Critics include Gregor Gysi, who heads the opposition Left party in Germany, who recently condemned the members of G7 for "claiming the right to make decisions on behalf of other countries."
"Meetings do matter”"
But critics are often missing the point, according to Ella Kokotsis. Together with a team of researchers at the University of Toronto, she has been tracking the extent to which leaders have been delivering on their promises made at G7 summits over the last 20 years. "These meetings do matter", Kokotsis told journalists gathered for a pre-summit briefing in the grand villa that houses the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), a think tank based in Berlin.
She pointed to climate change: Back in 1979, she said, climate change initiatives at the G7 summit calling for emissions reductions served as a starting point for the global discussion on combating climate change. "Then, years later you see it having an effect in national governments."
And while compliance rates on how leaders deliver on their promises vary, overall "compliance tends to be quite high," Kokotsis said, adding that her research showed that it was particularly high when it comes to political and security issues, but less so in the fields of development and trade. However, compliance does vary among countries, she noted, with Italy and Russia being particularly lax in the past when it came to delivering.
Value-added of sitting face to face
But she conceded that it was often difficult for laymen to understand the real value of having such small, informal meetings among heads of state. Gesturing to the smallish conference table she was sitting at, she pointed to the "very important value added in having the leaders sit at a table like this face to face and look at each other."
It was impossible, Kokotsis said, to place a value on "having discussions where two leaders can get up and take a walk outside and come to an agreement that wouldn't happen over the phone or Skype."
Katharina Gnath, associate fellow for globalization and trade at DGAP, agrees. G7, she said, was more "than summits and promises. It's a network." She pointed to the numerous meetings, at ministerial and lower levels, in the run-up to the meetings spread over the course of the year. "That's a real value-added that you need to consider if you want to assess the summits."
Others disagree: Protests kicked off in Munich today, where several thousand demonstrators took to the streets. Over the weekend, at least according to the organizers, as many as 10,000 anti-G7 demonstrators may descend on the usually tranquil town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen in an attempt, as the lopsided sticker in Berlin proclaims, "to storm the summit."