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Friday, 27 March 2009

27 March 2009

I’m not sure I quite know how to break this to you – but I fear that the much-ballyhooed G20 summit to be held in London next Thursday may turn out to be, well, not very much to write home about.

For one thing, a quick glance at the official timetable reveals that the entire shebang will last precisely seven hours, including time for breakfast and lunch. (Breakfast: 0830-0945; morning session: 0950-1325; lunch: 1325-1430; afternoon session: 1430-1530)

The formal talking bit of the proceedings will last just four hours and 35 minutes, which according to my calculations, means that each delegation will have less than 14 minutes of speaking time (and yes, that includes time for translation).

Who’ll be there? I knew you’d ask, so here’s the list of official G20 members: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States – and the European Union.

But at the last summit, held in Washington last November, Spain and the Netherlands were also invited. And this time, the invitation list has expanded yet again to include the New Partnership for African Development, the Association of South East Asian Nations, and the African Union. Not to mention the UN, the IMF, World Bank, World Trade Organisation and OECD.

The official G20 members represent 90 per cent of global economic activity, 80 per cent of world trade, and two-thirds of the world population. Which, I accept, is impressive.

So why am I so sceptical about what’ll be achieved? For one thing, I am sceptical about summits in general: I’ve reported on far too many of them in my time, and frankly, I’m not sure I can remember a single thing of significance that emerged from any of them. Commonwealth summits, NATO summits, EU summits – been there, done that. And not much to show from any of them.

For another thing, in my experience, the real work is done long before the summit itself. Diplomats and civil servants work flat out for weeks in advance, drafting, consulting, re-drafting, re-consulting – so that all that’s left for the top bods to do is tweak a word here and a word there before the final communiqué is released to a breathlessly waiting world.

All right, maybe I exaggerate. But not by much. Because in the midst of a deep economic crisis, each leader is thinking – as they must – about their own political constituency first and foremost. It is in the nature of these events that what they eventually agree on will largely be anodyne, banal and blindingly self-evident. You know the sort of thing:

“We reaffirm our commitment to work together to encourage a rapid end to the current crisis, to make all necessary reforms in a spirit of international cooperation, and to redouble our efforts to achieve agreement in the Doha round of the world trade talks.

“We restate our determination not to adopt protectionist measures which would hit the poorest hardest; and we reaffirm our faith in the power of motherhood and apple pie.”

So why do they bother? Well, what do you do when you and your colleagues face a crisis? You have a meeting. Does it help? Sometimes, it may. But I suspect that if you were asked to sort out the global economic melt-down, you might need more than 14 minutes.

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