L'Aquila Exceeds Low Expectations G-8 Celebrates Summit of Unity

A clear statement on Iran, ambitious targets for climate protection and billions of dollars in aid for developing countries: The G-8's ability to make real decisions has impressed its critics. Yet it was easy to regard the summit as a success when expectations were so low.

By in L'Aquila, Italy

Instead of fat black limousines there are only small white electric vehicles cruising around the area where the G-8 summit is being held. And it is odd seeing Libyan President Muammar al-Gaddafi, famed for his penchant for gaudy opulence, lower himself onto a narrow bench. But he clearly doesn't feel very at home on that bench, judging by the brief wave he gives in response to a greeting. At least Gaddafi's entourage, which trails his slow-moving car, is somewhat bigger than that of the other leaders in the convoy.

(L to R) Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, US President Barack Obama and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

(L to R) Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, US President Barack Obama and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

As it is, humility has been the order of the day for the members of the G-8 and their guests. There's the financial crisis, not to mention Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's decision to relocate the summit -- at short-notice -- to the earthquake-scarred town of L'Aquila. Berlusconi says he did this in order to raise awareness about the devastation in the region. As a result the attending politicians have had to make do with spartan accommodation in barracks belonging to the Italian financial police.

Still, the atmosphere on this last day of the G-8 meeting is buoyant. Berlusconi comes across as far more relaxed than he did at the start of the summit -- and contrary to all fears he managed to avoid making any embarrassing gaffes. The only scandal was the decision of French president's wife Carla Bruni to stay away from the official program -- a move that prompted an angry tirade from the Italian newspaper Il Giornale, which is actually owned by Berlusconi's brother Paolo. "Someone tell the first lady that where we come from, snobbery like this is called boorishness," sniffed the paper.

But in light of a barrage of criticism the Italian head of state had to weather before the summit even started, amid headlines about his alleged affair with a minor, not to mention his chaotic preparation for the event, he has actually done well, managing to avoid any major conflicts.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Bruni's husband President Nicolas Sarkozy also appeared in a sunny frame of mind as the summit drew to a close. But that is no surprise given that in the past few days they had managed to come up with all sorts of surprises.

On Friday, after US President Barack Obama staged a rousing finale, Gadaffi and other guests from developing nations and international organizations found themselves en route to a meeting. In the name of the developed world, Obama promised some $20 billion (€14.4 billion) for agriculture and to secure food supply. The total fund had been boosted from earlier on Friday when just $15 billion had been promised.

Turning Point?

Moreover, the announcement marked a turning point in US foreign policy, a point that was not lost even on non-governmental organizations. "Instead of shipping their surplus maize and rice onto poor countries, the US is now supporting agriculture," said Jörn Kalinski from the German section of Oxfam, adding that his charity welcomed news of the $20 billion. However, he noted that the G-8 had not specified whether this was a new pledge or contained some of the donations promised previously. The G-8 must not try to deceive the general public, the development expert warned.

For days Kalinski and his counterparts in L'Aquila have been railing against the G-8 nations for not fulfilling promises made at the 2005 Gleneagles summit. Back then an extra $50 billion in development aid until 2010 was promised. But according to figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), only a third of that has actually appeared. In L'Aquila the G-8 reiterated the Gleneagles goal -- but Oxfam remains highly skeptical as to whether the money will actually materialize.

Nonetheless the results of L'Aquila this week are being sold as a breakthrough -- similar to a number of decisions reached earlier on in the summit. On Thursday, the countries of the so-called Major Economies Forum (MEF) -- which include the G-8 nations, the G-5 nations, plus Australia, Indonesia and South Korea -- met. What makes this particularly significant is that the G-5 includes the nations of Brazil, India, China, South Africa and Mexico, all of which have rapidly developing economies. And they all agreed that global temperatures should not rise by more than an average of 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels until 2050.

Additionally there has been an attempt to revive the stalled Doha round of World Trade Organization talks, which aim to shrink global trade barriers. Members of the G-8 with the G-5 agreed that they aim to complete the talks by 2010.

Yet if anything this pledge shows how difficult it is to take these serious commitments seriously. It is highly doubtful that the ongoing WTO talks that have dragged on without success for seven years will draw to a conclusion just as the world is experiencing a hefty financial crisis. And when it comes to fighting climate change, the much-heralded breakthrough is also not what it seems. The aim of getting the MEF states to commit to cutting their emissions in half by 2050 was not achieved. That would have been vital for the forthcoming December negotiations in Copenhagen where nations will try to reach a new climate agreement and replace the Kyoto Protocol. The G-8 states themselves did stress this aim in one of their own declarations in L'Aquila.

The problem is that the developing nations want the industrialized countries to commit to mid-term emissions targets for 2020 -- and avoid setting long-term targets ahead of that. However, for the United States in particular, such a step would pose difficulties. Obama has already reached the limits of support at home for his climate policy.

While Merkel said that there had been clear progress at L'Aquila, she admitted that there remained a "huge amount of work" to do in the run up to Copenhagen.

Shifting Global Power Structures

Despite the modest closing words from the German chancellor there is still a feeling that the summit exceeded expectations. That wasn't hard. Expectations had been so low that practically any result would have been considered a success. Only a few days before the meeting Merkel herself had questioned whether the G-8 -- comprising of the United States, France, Italy, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Canada and Russia -- was the right forum for dealing with the crisis, in the light of the shifts in the global power structures. She told the German parliament last week that the G-20 would be the future format for determining the world economic order, like an "overarching roof."

And she wasn't the only one. In recent weeks the summit has repeatedly been described as a kind of bridge, or staging post, on the way to the G-20 summit in the US city of Pittsburgh in September.

The G-8 states also surprised most observers by coming out with a clear statement on Iran right after the first evening meal in Italy -- something that demonstrated a remarkable ability to make quick decisions. The group voiced its deep concern abut the actions of the government in Tehran against protests following the disputed election. And they gave Iran until September to accept negotiations over its nuclear program or face tougher sanctions.

The fact that Russia signed up to such a strong statement was also regarded as a success by the other G-8 states. On Friday Merkel said that it was important to have Russia "on board" -- particularly if it comes to discussing sanctions once the G-8's September deadline runs out.

Obama Steals the Show

In the end it was thanks to Obama that a spirit of determination was felt in the military barracks of L'Aquila. Once again the US president managed to steal the show.

Members of the other countries delegations were impressed by Obama, surrounded by only a few bodyguards, as he sprang past them. And even when it came to issues like climate change and development aid, where the European Union is actually far ahead of the United States, Obama was always the one who was applauded in L'Aquila. This was because he was finally bringing to a close those long years when the US blocked decisions and made further progress on these issues impossible.

By the end of the summit the Group of Eight, a forum that many had dismissed as a remnant of the old world order, suddenly looked a lot more like a group of powerful states possessed with great powers of decision-making. Merkel was full of praise for the way the G-8 had come together too. "There are areas where I am also still in favour of the Group of Eight reaching a consensus first," she said.

Nevertheless a decision will have to be made in the coming months about whether the G-20 will continue to make the key decisions in the future. Or even how, if the group takes on more members. Because the other thing that everyone seems to agree is this: eight is too few.


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