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Great Britain: G7 Summit Reduces Agenda To Core Items

  • Ben Partridge

London, 14 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Leaders of the seven leading industrial nations plus Russia meet in the British city of Birmingham at the weekend (May 15-17) for their annual summit to discuss the most pressing problems facing the global economy.

The conference will be the 24th annual meeting of the G7 nations: Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States. Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who has been coming to these summits since 1992, will again be present.

The summit will focus on three main areas: how to promote jobs and growth; to combat international crime; and to respond to the economic crisis in Asia that threatens to slow world growth.

One analyst says the chosen themes reflect popular anxieties about the trend toward globalization in trade and business, a trend that has gathered pace since the end of the Cold War, with the spread of democracy and market economies to Eastern and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union.

He says world leaders know that globalization is the key to their prosperity by lowering costs and improving quality and choice. But their electorates worry about its darker side; about loss of jobs; the perception of rising crime; and the risk of financial instability.

It is the first time the agenda of a G7 summit has been limited to a few "core" items. This was at the insistence of the host Prime Minister Tony Blair who wants the talks to have a sharper focus.

It will also be the first time that heads of state and government have met alone without their foreign and finance ministers. They will get together in an informal retreat outside Birmingham in a bid to recreate the more intimate style of the original summits (the "without necktie style" of the 1970s, as a Japanese official put it).

Foreign and finance ministers already held their own talks last weekend, disposing of a mass of issues that have cluttered up previous summits, and, according to critics, often made them seem like no more than high-powered photo opportunities.

Successful summits depend on the personal chemistry between the leaders. The nine statesmen due in Birmingham: Blair, Clinton, Chirac, Kohl, Hashimoto, Prodi, Chretien, Yeltsin and Santer (representing the European Commission) were all at the Denver summit last year, so they know each other. One official says the chemistry is "good."

Some 3,000 journalists are to converge on Birmingham, an ugly red-brick industrial city noted for the tolerance of its multiracial society.

Although the agenda is pre-ordained, the summit is expected to discuss India's shock decision to stage five nuclear tests this week, a move that set off fears of a nuclear arms race on the sub-continent. Ever since the first economic summit in the 1970s, political emergencies have invariably forced themselves onto the agenda at the last minute

Other topics expected to be raised formally or informally are the progress of reforms in Russia; the planned introduction of the single European currency; the situation in former Yugoslavia, including Kosovo; and the threat to enterprises posed by the millennium "computer bug."

Nuclear safety in Ukraine will also figure in the talks. Last year's Denver summit pledged $300 million to help fund repair work on the concrete sarcophagus over the wrecked No.4 reactor at Chornobyl. To date, half the full requirement of $760 million has been raised by the G7 and the international community The final communiqu on Sunday is expected to include a pledge to coordinate help for the weakest economic region in the world, Africa.

But Blair, who heads a political party that traditionally represents organized labor, wants most emphasis to go on jobs. At a summit briefing (Wednesday), Richard Layard of the London School of Economics said the failure of the continental Europeans to reduce their jobless rate is "scandalous."

Unemployment in Germany reached 12.6 percent in January, the highest rate among the G7 countries. Youth unemployment stands at about 33 percent in Italy and 28 percent in France.

The summit will focus on how to get young people into work; on countering the social exclusion of the long-term unemployed; and on keeping older people in the labor market. It will also focus on whether the "Anglo-Saxon" countries -- the U.S. and U.K. -- can offer any "models" in view of their much lower unemployment rates.

Back in the 1970s, terrorism, hijacking and hostage-taking were the first non-economic issues to reach the G7 agenda. The Birmingham talks will focus on how globalization has added a new dimension to crime. Open borders and new technologies have made life easier for the criminal. The end of the Cold War has removed barriers to drug trafficking and raised fears of nuclear smuggling.

The summit will discuss how to track down criminals who exploit new technologies for fraud and theft; to deter financial crime and money laundering; and the smuggling of people and firearms.

On the third main issue -- the economic turbulence afflicting Indonesia, Thailand, South Korea and other Asian nations -- the summit will discuss how to respond to the political and social crises that are likely to arise following their financial failures.

At the informal retreat outside Birmingham, each national leader will be accompanied by no more than five officials. By cutting the numbers, and limiting the agenda, Blair hopes the summit will be more focused, more effective. The final communiqu will be shorter, more straightforward. Will this minimalist approach work? Much may depend on an unpredictable quality: personal chemistry, or how well the politicians get on.