King of the World's sole power is spin
GENEVA would make a perfect weekend break for the Prime Minister. Its waters are just the right swimming temperature, and the Swiss newspapers are on-message. Le Temps, one of its main titles, was last Friday proclaiming "Tony Blair: King of the World." Well he is, after all, chairing both the G8 and the European Union. At home his authority is recharged by a UK election victory - while Jacques Chirac is on the ropes in France and Gerhard Schroeder is facing election defeat in Germany.
But in Downing Street, Blair feels far from omnipotent. He spent last week begging Czechs and Greeks for their allegiance in the EU, while his ministers were hard at work lowering expectations for Gleneagles next week. So far, it's all throne and no power.
While the EU chairmanship may look enticing from Geneva, it does not allow Britain to call the shots. The Prime Minister has inherited an agenda which he has to follow as best he can. As chairman, the task is to unite warring factions.
Blair is uniquely unqualified for such a task because he is a warring faction. He is battling with Chirac over two totemic struggles: deregulation of services and the future levels of EU farm subsidies. Blair must referee his own fight.
This means weakness, rather than strength, as he will struggle to be seen as impartial by other EU members, who will cut their own deals. Poland has already offered to step in and chair the fight, on the logic that Britain is obviously unable to adjudicate itself.
Such acrimony has ruled out progress during Britain's six-month presidency. Indeed, Blair's main targets are existing pledges, such as starting accession talks with Turkey and relaunching the much-delayed EU Services Directive.
Power depends on harmony within the EU. The Irish presidency last year spelt a period of consensus: it achieved much as a result. But for Blair, success will simply be to stop the EU project falling apart.
This is not a seat of power. The G8 has even less clout. It will not seem that way to protesters, who see the leaders of the planet's most powerful countries packed into one luxury golf resort. But the summit was designed to talk about economics, and has no executive powers.
The trick at G8 summits is to produce a communiqu which looks like a breakthrough. Blair excels at bending language to mean anything to anyone. Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, excels at dressing up 50p as 1. These two have some illusions in store.
The greatest trick of all is the government-subsidised protest concerts, where Labour ministers have been hand-in-glove with the celebrities organising the Live-8 music to 'demand' what ministers have already agreed.
Some clever spinning has inserted words into the mouths of the concert-goers, through newspaper ads, 'demanding' that the G8 enact an agenda almost identical to that of the British government. The protest is to cover up the lack of real progress.
Chairing G8 does not bring any extra power to any of its members. It simply provides a striking backdrop: the Evian resort in the French alps, the Sea Island resort in America or the Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland. But in 30 years, it has seldom done any good in itself.
Take the African debt relief deal agreed by the G8 finance ministers in London last month. It was welcome, but hardly induced by the British. It was the latest stage of talks which have been going on for years, and worth far less than the claimed $50bn.
The present value of the loans had slumped to $15bn - and writing it off cost about $1.1bn, split between several creditor nations. It's hardly the result of a popular revolution, although it suits everyone concerned to describe it in these terms.
The G8 has offered Jack McConnell an unearned respite from his day job, and allowed him to see if he can muscle in on charity work which Scots have already been carrying out in Malawi without the need for any politician's intervention.
The First Minister is simply seeking a diversion from his failure to tackle poverty in Scotland - and providing himself with an excuse to claim (as he did last week) that his critics are somehow attacking African children. Even for him, it is a base PR stunt.
Even for Blair, the summit may provide an opportunity to be rude about America and criticise George Bush for failing to sign up to the European agenda on climate change. But thumbing your nose at Washington hardly amounts to power.
The effectiveness of G8 summits can be gauged by recalling promises on Africa made in other summits: such as the pledge to eliminate polio in Africa by 2005. The disease is on the rise, endemic in Nigeria and Egypt and last week returned to Angola.
Each G8 year brings different political fashions. In 1997 leaders met in Denver, Colorado to pledge a "results-based" approach to African aid. Now the focus is on cash input, not results - hence the pledges will be expressed in crude, cash terms. Three years ago, Canada's G8 had the war in Rwanda fresh in the minds of the leaders, who pledged to help Africa stop future genocides. Now that genocide is taking place in Darfur, the focus has suddenly shifted back on to food and vaccination.
The various pledges to double aid come as part of a global trend. Japan, for example, held its own meeting with 30 African ambassadors last week and delivered its promise. The tough issue it wants to talk about is how to handle nuclear-armed North Korea.
But the real absence of G8 power is shown by the collapse of hopes on a deal on climate change. By Saturday, the negotiators working ahead of Wednesday's summit had drawn a blank: there will be nothing beyond a statement of broad principles.
British officials now say, with a straight face, that they never wanted a deal. "We're not trying to get targets at Gleneagles, it would be wholly wrong," explains one Cabinet minister. The speed of retreat is remarkable.
So the 'Gleneagles Declaration' on climate change will pledge to share new fuel technology with the developed world, but there has been no success in moving America one inch. The height of UK ambition is to simply hold more talks later.
If countries are not ready to do a deal, neither the G8 nor the EU chairmanship can force them. This is the reality of the power Blair holds: he can ask the questions, but not dictate the answers. But he can hold an almighty pop concert.
Blair has handled Live 8 successfully, and manipulated its political objectives ingeniously. But he has three days left to secure something more substantial. Otherwise a music festival may be all that is remembered of his time as King of the World.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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