- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 9, 2009

LONDON

Despite a laundry list of global challenges, the Group of Eight summit that opened Wednesday in the temblor-rattled Italian city of L’Aquila has been overshadowed by a sex scandal, earthquake fears and poor planning by the host government.

Some European media have reported that chaotic organization of the summit - which has resulted in Washington’s taking the lead - was putting Italy’s membership in the elite group of the world’s major powers at risk.

In addition, analysts have wondered whether the days of the G-8 are numbered amid pressure from rising economies such as China, India, and Brazil for the group to be expanded and Europe’s membership to be consolidated.

“I think the G-8’s future is in jeopardy,” said Patrick Keller, coordinator of foreign and security policy at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Berlin.

Mr. Keller cited German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s favoring of a greater emphasis on the Group of 20, which includes fast-developing countries from Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Even this week’s summit will include discussions on broadening the forum, although Britain, Japan, and Italy all have expressed a desire to retain the core G-8. The current members are United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia.

Mr. Keller agreed that the G-20 is very much “in tune with the zeitgeist,” a move toward growing multilateralism.

But Mr. Keller said a change to the G-8 structure could have serious repercussions.

“As the U.N. demonstrates, inclusiveness does not automatically translate into effectiveness,” he said. “Therefore I still believe that a G-8 working as a serious forum for the most powerful and democratic states on earth still has an important purpose.

“If the G-8 was abolished in favor of the G-20, the G-8 states would communicate more intensively through back channels in order to unify their position,” he said.

And this, he said, wouldn’t benefit anyone.

Kathleen Burk, a specialist on foreign affairs at University College London, agreed.

“The G-20 is so large that both the diplomacy and the discussions can be more unwieldy,” she said.

Ms. Burk added, though, that if the G-8 is increasingly seen as too exclusive, then it would indeed gradually become irrelevant.

“But I don’t see that happening very soon as it is too useful,” she said.

Daniel Hamilton, director of the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Transatlantic Relations in Washington, said that the G-8 was originally intended as a venue for core world leaders to discuss problems informally but has turned into a circus with annual pledges of hundreds of commitments to a vast multitude of issues with very little follow-up.

“But a G-20 is unlikely to fare much better in this regard,” he said. “There is still a need for a small core of like-minded countries to address issues of global economic governance, not excluding others but paving the way with considerations on standards and regulations and rules of the road.”

This week in Italy, G-8 members are scheduled to discuss climate change, the ongoing global economic crisis, and world poverty.

Yet great attention has been focused on Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and whether high-priced escorts were paid to attend parties at his official Rome residence.

Ever since his wife said in May that she was divorcing him, accusations that Mr. Berlusconi has been cavorting with young women, including a teenager, have swirled around him.

He has denied all accusations, blaming them on political opponents.

At the same time, worries have mounted over the possibility of an earthquake at the site of the summit. Mr. Berlusconi decided to hold the meeting in L’Aquila to show solidarity with the city after a horrific earthquake killed nearly 300 people there on April 6. But new earthquakes have beset L’Aquila with ongoing tremors continuing to rattle nerves.

Meanwhile, massive protests marred the last G-20 summit in London in April, at which leaders agreed to make more than $1 trillion in new lending available to help spark global growth.

The United States will play host to the next G-20 summit of world leaders in Pittsburgh in late September.

Claire Melamed, head of policy at the anti-poverty organization ActionAid, wrote this week in London’s Guardian newspaper that the G-8’s scope seems indeed to be narrowing with substantive issues that are increasingly saved for the G-20.

But “can China and Brazil, for example, force the United States to cough up more than the paltry $1 billion it recently announced to help the poorest countries cope with the impact of climate change?” she asked. “Would South Africa be any more successful than the U.K. in making Italy keep its promises on foreign aid?

“Unless the answer to any of these questions is yes, the supposed big shift in global power embodied in the new-look G-20 will be more hype than hope,” she said.

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