Making social science accessible

27 May 2021

UK in the world

From 11-13 June this year, the UK will host the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall.

This is the first major international event which the UK has held since the end of the transition period. It is thus a chance to get a sense of the kind of country Boris Johnson wants the UK to be on the international stage in the post-Brexit era.

It will also bring together, in-person, the leaders of some of some of the world’s most powerful countries for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic.

This explainer looks at what the G7 is and what it does, and previews the big political and policy questions in the run-up to the June Summit.

G7 Summit

What is the G7?

G7 stands for ‘Group of 7’ and is an informal association of seven of the world’s most powerful industrialised nations: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the USA.

The origins of the group are primarily economic. It first met in 1975, when the leaders of six ‘leading industrial countries’ (the present G7 minus Canada) gathered to discuss how to respond to the oil crisis and ensuing financial crisis. At the time the group represented 70% of global GDP, although it’s now closer to 40%.

The declaration following the first meeting affirmed the intention to work together for greater global monetary stability. It advocated trade liberalisation and sustained economic growth, which would ‘help the entire world and developing countries to prosper’.

It also noted their ‘shared beliefs and shared responsibilities’ as industrial democracies, including ‘the government of an open democratic society, dedicated to individual liberty and social advancement’.

The group agreed to meet once a year (with Canada joining in 1976) and in the 1980s discussion began to also cover foreign and security policy questions. The EU has attended all G7 meetings since 1981 but is not considered a full member and never holds the Presidency of the group.

Today the group’s members discuss much beyond the economy, but still deem its defining feature to be a shared set of values. The UK Government defines the members as ‘open, democratic and outward-looking societies’.

Other members have picked out human rights, democracy, the rule of law, free markets, prosperity and sustainable development as key common values.

How does the G7 work?

The group does not have a formal constitution or decision-making process.

The main way G7 countries engage is via an annual ‘summit’ or meeting of the leaders of the G7 states. The Presidency, which rotates each year between the seven members, sets the agenda for each year’s summit.

The summit often takes place away from city centres and without the trappings of formal state visits to allow for more concentrated discussion.

While the leaders’ summit is the centrepiece, there is a wide network of other meetings and groups which take place in the run-up. This has been one of the main developments of the G7 since its first meeting in 1975.

The 2021 G7 has separate Ministerial Groups for Trade, Interior, Health, Foreign, Climate, Digital and Finance. In 2021 there are also formal engagement groups to advocate on behalf of youth, women, science, labour, civil society and business.

Following G7 Ministerials and Summits, member states announce measures they have decided to take together, in a joint communiqué.

Other states are often invited to particular relevant meetings, reflecting how G7 events can also be a forum for classic diplomacy. Iran’s Foreign Minister met Emmanuel Macron on the sidelines of the 2019 summit, with talk that this could lead the way to a later meeting between Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (something which ultimately did not occur).

What has the G7 achieved?

The most recent G7 leaders’ summit took place in Biarritz, France in August 2019. Actions taken included a plan and financial assistance to combat Amazon forest wildfires, and an initiative to make it easier for African women to obtain credit.

G7 Summit

The Environment Ministers’ summit in May saw the signing a charter to take action on biodiversity by Ministers from the G7 and a handful of other states.

Perhaps more memorable was the agreement in 2005 of the G8 (as it then was, more on that below) Finance Ministers to write off the debts which eighteen of the world’s poorest countries owed to the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and African Development Fund. Countries also made specific aid commitments, including a UK pledge to spend 0.7% of its gross national income on aid by 2013.

Sometimes the role of the G7 can be more prosaic, about building relations between members, gathering momentum or setting targets. Indeed, tense relations between leaders – for example during Donald Trump’s US Presidency – can limit how much the G7 can agree at any given summit.

Why are Russia and China not members?

Russia joined the G7 in 1998, but its participation was suspended by the leaders of the other member states in 2014 following its annexation of Crimea in Ukraine. The other members collectively condemned Russia’s violation of the principles of international law.

Then-President of the US Donald Trump said he thought Russia should be allowed back into the group, but this position has not been supported by other member states. Current President Joe Biden has since ruled out any plans to invite Russia back.

As for China, the G7’s lack of formal constitution or decision-making processes makes it hard to give an exact reason for lack of membership.

The group’s ‘select’ membership, informal structure and the like-mindedness of member states are all considered assets.

So while China has the world’s second-largest economy, members may not consider it well enough aligned with key values including democracy and human rights.

Ultimately membership comes down to what G7 members think best serves the political and economic interests of the group.

Indeed, Russia was not necessarily an obvious candidate for membership in 1998 – as it was economically relatively weak and still under its first post-Soviet leader.

However then-US President Bill Clinton considered its membership a way to bring Russia closer to the West and advance security interests.

What is the G20?

The G20 is a similar forum made up of – as the name suggests – a wider group of 20 members: the G7 and EU plus Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Turkey. Spain also has a permanent guest invitation.

G7 Finance Ministers created the G20 in 1999, following the 1997 economic crisis, as a way to bring other countries into their discussions on global economics and finance.

The group defines itself as bringing together the ‘world’s major economies’, covering 80% of global GDP, 75% of global trade, and 60% of the global population.

It has a similar structure to the G7, with a rotating Presidency, and (since 2008) a yearly leader-level summit. This is supported by a range of ministerial meetings and working groups – covering multiple policy areas – ahead of the main summit, which will next be hosted by Italy in October 2021.

The G20 nonetheless retains a ‘reserved’ status for its finance track, reflecting its origins as an economic grouping. The G20’s role in managing the response to the global financial crisis (hence the first leaders’ summit in 2008 convened by Gordon Brown as Prime Minister in London) was widely considered a success.

The group is at times used for major economic goal-setting, and has also been a platform for other major announcement such as the US and China’s joint accession to the Paris climate agreement in 2016.

G7 2021: what are the UK’s aims for the summit?

The UK holds the Presidency of the G7 this year, which means it is hosting this year’s summit, in Cornwall, as well as the Ministerial meetings taking place virtually and physically in the build-up.

The UK’s overarching slogan for its G7 Presidency is to ‘build back better’ from the Covid-19 pandemic, and its policy priorities are:

  • leading the global recovery from coronavirus while strengthening resilience against future pandemics;
  • promoting future prosperity by championing free and fair trade;
  • tackling climate change and preserving the planet’s biodiversity;
  • championing shared values.

What those priorities amount to in practice will depend on the outcomes of discussions at the various meetings.

The G7 Foreign Ministers’ meeting took place, in-person, in London in early May, with a UK Government statement emphasising that discussion would focus on issues that threaten to undermine democracy, freedoms and human rights.

The final communiqué contained a call for China to ‘participate constructively in the rules-based international system’ and expressed deep concern about its treatment of ethnic minorities.

On Russia, it expressed deep concern about its pattern of ‘irresponsible and destabilising behaviour’ and deteriorating record on human rights.

Other dates to look out for are the Health Ministers’ meeting from 3-4 June, and the Finance Ministers’ meeting from 4-5 June.

Is the UK trying to create a ‘D10’?

One other notable aspect of this year’s G7 is that the UK has invited Australia, India, South Korea and South Africa as guests.

This follows reports last year that Boris Johnson was considering the establishment of a new ‘D10’ group of democratic countries made up of the G7 plus Australia, India and South Korea.

The principal focus of the group would reportedly be establishing alternatives to China for supplies of 5G and other technological equipment, rather than usurping the G7 altogether.

The invitation has not (so far) been accompanied by any formal announcements of a ‘D10’ or similar, but it does seem to reflect a wider British foreign policy priority to build stronger alliances in the Indo-Pacific region, as laid out in the recently published Integrated Review.

What are other countries’ priorities?

While the UK is host, the other G7 countries will have priorities of their own.

Most notably, the June summit will be Joe Biden’s first overseas trip as American President, and thus an important moment in demonstrating his foreign and international policy commitments.

Under President Biden, the USA re-joined the Paris Agreement – which sets legally binding targets on global emissions reductions – and the World Health Organisation, both of which former President Donald Trump had previously left. This has been alongside rapid domestic legislation and international targets on climate change, and a tougher stance on China. We’re likely to see Joe Biden push these issues further at the G7.

A point of possible tension is how to manage global Covid-19 vaccine supply, including the potential waiver of vaccine patents which would open up the possibility for wider manufacturing of doses.

The USA backs the plan – proposed by India and South Africa – and some European leaders have suggested they are open to the idea, despite previously making more equivocal statements. However German Chancellor Angela Merkel has criticised the plan’s implications for vaccine production.

Vaccine discussions could also re-open questions about the sharing of supplies between nations, given the previous furore between the UK and EU over AstraZeneca supplies, and the critical surge of recent cases in India.

It will also be the last G7 for Angela Merkel, who steps down as Germany’s Chancellor in September, the first for new Italian Prime Minster Mario Draghi, and French President Emmanuel Macron’s last one before he seeks re-election next spring.

Added to all that, it is the first time the UK attends the G7 not as a member of the EU. This will be a test of how the UK and EU are able to work together in multilateral contexts.

What else is in the calendar?

The G7 meetings are not the only major international events on the horizon.

Immediately after the G7 leaders’ summit (11-13 June) is the NATO leaders’ summit, in Brussels on 14 June. NATO is a military alliance of 30 countries which are all in Europe except for the USA. The summit is the first since December 2019.

In October the UN Biodiversity Conference will take place in Kunming, China, and November will see the next UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow.

How important is the G7 to the success of COP26?

As the UK is hosting both the G7 and COP26 this year, there is a chance to use the first event as a means of building momentum towards the second.

There is precedent for this. The June 2015 G7 leaders’ communiqué expressed a determination to achieve a legally binding agreement at the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Paris (known COP21). This was ultimately achieved, with G7 members playing an important role in negotiations of the Paris Agreement.

This year’s COP is widely regarded as the most important since COP21 in Paris in 2015. That saw states agree to set targets on emissions reductions to keep global warming below two degrees celsius in relation to pre-industrial levels. But states will need to set more ambitious targets (known as nationally determined contributions, or NDCs) in order to meet that goal.

At a time when the US has recently re-joined the Paris climate agreement, and the UK has set the G7’s most ambitious NDC of a 68% emissions cut by 2030, the G7 could be an important staging post in scaling up ambition ahead of the November COP.

The UK has four key goals for COP26, which are: for countries to set targets for net zero emissions, and emissions cuts by 2030; for countries to formulate plans to adapt to the impacts of the climate crisis; for rich countries to provide finance to poor countries for emissions cuts and adaptation; for civil society to take a strong role in the talks.

Will we see a new ‘Global Britain’ at the summit?

‘Global Britain’ is essentially the Government’s strategic vision of the UK’s place in the world after Brexit.

The UK has talked up the importance of defending openness, democracy and human rights, and seeking multilateral solutions to issues like climate change and Covid-19 as key tenets of Global Britain.

A successful summit for the UK might see it push some more concrete policies in relation to the above priorities.

Given the desire it has also expressed to build stronger relations in the Indo-Pacific, the UK will also be keen to demonstrate its role as an effective diplomatic broker, able to bring together the biggest European, North American and Indo-Pacific powers for constructive talks.

By Joel Reland, Public and Foreign Policy researcher at the UK in a Changing Europe.


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