The Group of Eight (G8) has frequently come under attack for being an archaic institution that doesn’t represent the current configuration of global political and economic influence. These criticisms have intensified with the rise of the Group of 20 (G20) financial summit as the major vehicle for responding to the global financial crisis.

The 2009 L’Aquila G8 summit did little to affirm the group’s relevance. The Italian presidency failed to delineate a clear agenda, in part due to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s preoccupation with the spate of scandals over his personal life. A last-minute shift in venues from La Maddalena to the earthquake-ravaged L’Aquila — in an attempt to encourage reconstruction — further complicated matters. With no list of discussion topics clearly defined, the United States took the unprecedented step of drawing up an agenda for the host. But with so much done at the last minute, little was accomplished.

The L’Aquila summit made very clear that the efforts of eight developed countries are no longer enough to address major global concerns. Indeed, for the first time, the G8 summit seemed to be preparation for the larger G20 meeting. From the choice to defer major decisions on the world economy to the G20, to the close participation of non-G8 members in climate change and food security initiatives, L’Aquila demonstrated that a larger forum — or a different one — is needed.

Who Gets In?

The G8 has wrestled for years with the question of who gets to the sit at the table. Why is China excluded when it has much more economic influence than most G8 members? Why is the world’s largest democracy, India, not included?

The current composition basically reflects the concentration of economic power in 1975, when the group first met (minus Canada, which joined in 1976, and Russia, which joined in 1997). At that time, the configuration represented the world’s largest economies. The same is not true today — the economies of China and Brazil are bigger than some of those in the G8. Moreover, as the group’s agenda has broadened, these eight countries have become insufficient to deal with economic and environmental issues facing the world.

One of the strengths of the G8 is that as an informal, self-appointed body, only consent of existing members is required to expand its membership. The first official attempt at reform was launched at the 2007 Heiligendamm Summit, when the G8 recognized China, Brazil, Mexico, India, and South Africa as the Outreach Five (later the G5) and committed themselves to dialogue with these important emerging partners. Since then, the involvement of the five in the summit process has grown exponentially.

Lessons from L’Aquila

In L’Aquila, emphasis on the emerging economies pervaded the Summit agenda and communiqués. For the first time, the G8 and the G5 issued a Joint Declaration, outlining common positions on issues of trade and finance. Even the main communiqué focused on the role of and consequences for developing countries.

In addition, at the press conference after the Major Economies Forum, President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of Australia — rather than another of the G8 leaders — announced the steps that had been taken on climate change policy. Halfway through, they were joined onstage by Gordon Brown of the United Kingdom, Taro Aso of Japan, Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, Stephen Harper of Canada, and, most interestingly, Filipe Calderon of Mexico. Calderon’s presence demonstrated that addressing climate change will require bringing on board as many of the major greenhouse gas emitters as possible.

In the Major Economies Forum press conference, Obama also acknowledged the 27 countries that took some part in summit meetings. The G8 has functionally become the Gx, with different (usually larger) configurations meeting over the three days. However, if China and India are to cooperate in responding to the international financial crisis and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, they need to become full members of the club. Continuing to treat them as second-tier members will only delay finding solutions to these pressing problems. It’s time to change the architecture of the G8.

G8 becomes G14?

The future of summitry lies in expanding the G8. Canada plays host to the next summit in Muskoka, Ontario, in 2010. Prime Minister Harper has so far resisted pressure to make Muskoka the first G14 summit by adding the G5 plus Egypt as a representative of the Muslim world. Harper fears the dilution of Canada’s influence within the elite club. Although he acknowledged in L’Aquila that the G8 isn’t representative of global political and economic clout, he has appealed to their shared values of democracy and human rights as a reason for maintaining the status quo.

Harper’s resistance to inevitable change is unhelpful. He risks pushing the institution to the point of obsolescence, where its members simply abandon it and decide to craft a new, more representative body from scratch. If Canada does not take an active role in the expansion of the G8, and instead a new group of 10 countries forms to better reflect the contemporary distribution of global power, Canada isn’t likely to make the cut.

Obama expressed support for expansion at this final press conference of the summit, calling the exclusion of China and India “wrongheaded.” He stressed the need to find the right combination of member states that balances inclusivity with capacity for action, with an eye to streamlining the international system and reducing the number of summits. With the internationally popular U.S. president throwing his not-inconsiderable weight behind expansion, it seems only a matter of time before the club opens up.

Indeed, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, the 2011 host, declared at L’Aquila that if Canada does not make it a G14, France will. The value of a G14 would be that it is large enough to substantively address global issues, while remaining small enough to allow for intimate discussions among the leaders — something lacking in the larger G20. Thus, although the G8 is in need of expansion, a smaller summit will likely continue to exist parallel to the G20 to facilitate better dialogue on the pressing concerns of global governance.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributors Erin Fitzgerald and Sarah Yun are the 2009-10 chair and 2008-2009 chair, respecitively, of the G8 Research Group at the University of Toronto, in which capacity they attended the L'Aquila G8 Summit.

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