The G20 and the EU: a failed relationship?

The G20 summit in Cannes is over.  Here’s a grumpy little post about it that I first published on the ECFR blog this morning:

There’s something a little fraudulent about big international summits.  In the run-up to each conference, politicians and pundits promise that they are going to solve the crisis of the day in a single meeting.  Sometimes they do.  Mostly they don’t.  And then they (and you) forget the whole event in a few weeks.  Test yourself.  Can you remember all fourteen or fifteen summits that have been held on the Euro crisis?  Or all the conclaves that have marked supposed turning-points in the Afghan war?  Of course you can’t.

But it’s likely that, five or ten years from now, you’ll still have a vague recollection of this week’s G20 meeting in Cannes.  Not, sadly, because the assembled leaders will have achieved anything of world-historical significance.  Instead, historians will mark this down as the moment that Europe’s weakness on the world stage was laid totally bare.

The EU’s leaders have stumbled into this summit without a credible plan to save the Eurozone.  It’s not because they didn’t try.  As I note in an article for Política Exterior that was published this week, European politicians saw the summit as an important deadline for ending the crisis:

On 9 October, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that they were working on a plan to reinforce Europe’s banks and, in doing so finally halt the financial markets’ loss of confidence in the Eurozone.  Their goal was to complete this before the Group of Twenty (G20) summit in Cannes on 3-4 November.

The Eurozone’s leaders had been under international pressure to get their act together before Cannes.  British Chancellor of the Exchequer had called the G20 meeting a “clear deadline” for the Eurogroup.  Other G20 members ranging from Canada to Indonesia had publicly expressed concerns about the Eurozone.  For Merkel and Sarkozy, the idea of heading to Cannes empty-handed must have seemed too humiliating to contemplate.

Whoops.  Despite their best efforts, Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy have been surprised and embarrassed by the Greeks’ failure to fit in with their game-plan.  The Euro crisis continues to overshadow the summit, leaving the Europeans present looking silly.

Where the Eurozone goes from here still isn’t clear.  But I’m ready to bet that, before long, some commentators will be blaming the whole debacle on the G20 itself.  Although President Sarkozy and former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown were early advocates of the G20, a lot of Europeans feel uncomfortable with the forum.

As a whole, the EU’s members have less influence in the G20 than they wield in the G8.  At times, the U.S. and the non-Western emerging economies have ganged up on the Europeans in G20 debates, as they did in a dispute over reducing Europe’s political influence the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the run-up to last year’s G20 summit in Seoul.  The Europeans have also worked with China and other rising powers to criticize U.S. policy at recent summits, but they still fear they’re being marginalized.

So is the G20 bad for the EU, as I ask in my Política Exterior piece?  Not really.  Right now, it’s the EU that’s bad for the EU:

Crucially, the major obstacles to the EU performing effectively within the G20 continue to lie within the EU itself.  After the 2009 Pittsburgh G20 summit, for example, the U.S. and other powers gave the EU’s members almost a year to resolve the mechanics of IMF reform themselves.  It was only after it became clear that the Europeans could not or would do this that the Obama administration forced them into making hard choices before Seoul.

Similarly, the burst of pressure on the Eurozone to put its house in order this October followed a long period in which European countries had tried to halt the Euro crisis at their own pace.  The fact that Euro crisis came to overshadow the run-up to the Cannes tells us more about the deficiencies of decision-making in the Eurozone than in the G20, and EU leaders should not try to distract from their errors by grumbling about the G20.

When I wrote that, I still thought the EU would raise its game sufficiently to get through the Cannes summit in decent shape.  It hasn’t.  You won’t forget this moment for a while.