22 June 2010
Paola Subacchi

Dr Paola Subacchi

Senior Research Fellow, Global Economy and Finance


With the notable exception of the Franco-German support for the levy on banks, Europe's voice remains largely unheard in the run-up to the G20 summit in Toronto this weekend. As 2009 was Europe's summit year, 2010 is turning Asian-American, and not only because Canada and South Korea chair the G8 and G20 respectively.

In Europe, domestic concerns and the euro sovereign debt crisis have taken priority over global issues and have been dominating the policy debate since the beginning of the year. Even the countries that led the G20 process in 2009 - France and the UK - have taken a more subdued role this year. The new coalition government in the UK has clearly switched focus and interest, at least for the time being, onto the domestic agenda. In France, President Sarkozy, who promoted the upgrade of the G20 from ministerial meeting to heads-of-state summit, has recently become more absorbed in domestic politics in an attempt to regain popularity.

Having more countries around the table - and some are now key strategic and economic players - has pushed the bar higher and has created more competition for attention. Even if it is broadly assumed that Europe is a key pole in the new multipolar world, this new configuration inevitably implies some dispersion of influence and weight. If the broadening of the G20 has given some countries the ability to be heard beyond their region, it has certainly watered down Europe's influence.

The debt crisis may have put another nail in the coffin. It is imperative for Europe - i.e. the European Union as opposed to the individual European member states of the G20 - to find a new voice, and regain influence and credibility. For this its role in multilateral fora should be broader than just reflecting the domestic agendas of the European member states of the G20.

There are a number of areas where Europe can lead the dialogue, move the multilateral agenda forward and improve the summit architecture. First of all, it can help to turn the G20 from a crisis committee into a steering committee with a rolling agenda that focuses on key economic issues and preventive action. In concrete terms, Europe can share its experience, and more crucially its mistakes, in policy cooperation and evaluating progress in a number of critical areas - from strengthening budget discipline to improving surveillance and crisis prevention mechanisms.

Second, by addressing the issue of its own representation, Europe can help define the role of the G20 and make a significant step towards the reform of the international economic institutions. This would include collapsing the four European seats into an EU one, surely a hard act to initiate and implement, but a necessary one in order to give developing countries greater voice and representation. Of course the European representation will have to be adjusted to reflect the EU economic size, so that what is subtracted from the European members of the G20 will be regained in terms of more concentrated weight.

Third, Europe can decisively support South Korea's effort to expand the G20 agenda and include development issues. This means shifting focus from aid - a key item on the G8 agenda - to development, and frame the debate within the framework for strong, sustainable and balanced growth. However, Europe and Korea might find it difficult to agree on how best to promote development.

Even if the Toronto summit promises to be a rather low-key event, it is too late for Europe to have a deeper, more engaging and meaningful presence there. There is a bubbling agenda that is likely to emerge in Seoul in November. Will Europe be more visible then?

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Further resources

G8 and G20 Summits: African Players Changing the Rules
Expert Comment, Tom Cargill, June 2010

The G20: Short of Steam
The World Today, Mui Pong Goh, June 2010