Reading the G8 communique: did we win?

When the difference between "for example" and "including" means the world.

There are two ways to analyse a G8 communique. One is what you do in the minutes after it is issued, desperately scanning sentences, paragraphs, whole pages in seconds, your eyes alert for key words, trying to build an instant impression of whether they’ve pulled a fast one, whether things have come out better (don’t hold your breath) or worse (more like it) than you had expected. In these moments, the smallest things loom the largest, like the use of “for example” rather than “including” (the latter meaning that what follows it may actually happen, the former meaning that what follows was probably opposed by everyone around the table except the host). Communiques need this kind of fast and brutal scrutiny. Without it, the fleeting media spotlight might move on before genuinely significant downgrades (or even upgrades) in the text are spotted, and the chance to test leaders against their pre-summit intentions is left until nobody is listening.

The other way to analyse a communique is what you do later the same day, on a flight, or with a glass in hand, or sitting up in bed before you finally submit to sleep after days of summit madness. This one involves actually reading it.

The 2013 communique produced yesterday when the G8 wrapped up their meeting near Enniskillen, including the one-page "Lough Erne Declaration", is unusual in being worth a proper read. There is a thread running through it. It isn’t too long. And it has some passages that may be genuinely significant in mandating bold action in the months and years ahead.

Take the declaration, a list of ten sentences that, taken together, demand a pretty high standard of behaviour for G8 members from now on. Point four: “Developing countries should have the information and capacity to collect the taxes owed them – and other countries have a duty to help them.” It’s easy to find holes. The repeated use of “should” rather than the tougher “will”, for example, has not gone unnoticed. But picking such nits misses the big opportunity. Campaigners should take this declaration at face value, advertise it widely and throw it back at G8 leaders every time they fall short.

There are undoubtedly disappointments.

The biggest let-down is around the failure of the G8 as a whole to agree to compile information showing who actually benefits from the ownership of each company. If the G8 had agreed to do this and publish the results, they really would have put some rev in the transparency revolution. It now falls to the UK and France, who showed leadership, to drive a positive European approach on "beneficial ownership" through the European Union.

Another blow is the lack of new money to put behind positive words on agriculture, after David Cameron conceded early on that this would be a "leave your chequebook at home" summit. Nobody can argue with the call for funding to address Syria’s humanitarian emergency. But the $1.5bn raised in an afternoon for Syria happens to be about the same as the shortfall in the Global Agriculture and Food Security Programme that last year’s G8 promised to fill – a promise so far entirely undelivered.

However, elsewhere in the communique are tantalising signs of how far the tax and transparency debate has moved in the last year and the extent to which developing countries could benefit. The G8 makes clear that developing countries must be able to participate fully in the exchange of information needed for them to effectively collect the taxes they are due. The push for transparency in the extractives sector, so important for resource-rich developing countries, is buoyant after Canada pledged to match EU and US legislation in a pre-summit announcement. And the little-reported Open Data Charter has been agreed which could transform the way government information is presented and publicised, putting into citizens’ hands the means to hold their governments to account.

All of which means there is plenty of cause for encouragement from Lough Erne, and those who pushed this rock up the hill have something to show for their efforts. The Enough Food for Everyone IF campaign; the 342,219 ONE members who signed petitions calling on the G8 to fight malnutrition and unleash a transparency revolution; transparency champions from Africa and Asia who joined ONE on Saturday to tell the Prime Minister about the human impact of a lack of transparency; and the performers, volunteers and supporters who came together last week for ONE’s agit8 campaign: all have made their mark and added to a powerful new sense of momentum in the global fight against extreme poverty.

Then there is David Cameron’s role. He will have to take responsibility for where this summit fell short just as he should take credit for where it delivered. But he brought energy and a compelling and coherent idea to this G8 presidency and sold much of it to his counterparts. If activists hold leaders accountable for the commitments made, and those leaders show that they meant what they wrote, the Lough Erne communique may be key to the story of how extreme poverty was ended. That’ll be worth a read.

The G8. Photograph: Getty Images

Adrian Lovett is the Europe Executive Director of The ONE Campaign

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.