The first G7 summit in Brussels, but not the last?
This week, the leaders of the seven most industrialised countries – the US, Canada, Japan, France, Germany, Italy and the UK – and the European Union are gathering in Brussels. For the first time since 1998 when Russia became a member of the G8, it will not participate in the meetings.
In response to Russia's annexation of the Crimea, the G7 countries boycotted the G8 summit that would normally take place in Sochi under Russian chairmanship.
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The G7 Brussels Summit will be remembered as the summit without Russia, but equally as the first summit in the 40-year existence of the G7/G8 that is hosted by the European Union.
For decades, it was unthinkable that the European institutions would host a G7/G8 summit and chair the meetings.
After all, although it participates in all G8 meetings, the EU has never been recognised as a full member of the club. For this reason, the EU never held the G8 presidency, nor is the presence of the EU reflected in the name of the club – there are nine leaders around the G7 table: the heads of state and government of the G7 countries, European council president Van Rompuy and European commission president Barroso.
Nevertheless, the EU has been claiming for several years that it possesses full G8 membership.
This is not surprising if you consider the difficult road of the EU in the G7/G8. When the G7 was created in the mid-1970s, there was no room for the then European community. France was starkly opposed to its presence and refused to invite it during the first years of the G7.
After strong protest by the European institutions and smaller member states – such as Belgium and the Netherlands – France gave in. The president of the European commission received an invitation, but only for those sessions that fell under its competences, such as international trade.
Even this was not self-evident. One G7 host once 'forgot' to provide a chair for the European representative. On occasion the European commission president was left out of the traditional family photo.
However, due to the European commission's valuable expertise and contribution to the G7 process, it was quickly allowed to participate in other G7 sessions too.
By 1982, the European commission was taking part in all G7 preparatory meetings and summits.
After the implosion of the Soviet Union, the G7 even mandated the European commission to coordinate western aid to Central and Eastern countries. This eventually became the so-called PHARE programme.
But still, the EU never became a full member of the G8, although it has now more or less the same rights as any other G8 country. The only hurdle left was the right to host and chair the summit, which now seems to have been taken as well.
Has the EU now acquired full membership?
It is unlikely that the G7 countries will explicitly confirm this, but this G7 Brussels Summit could set a precedent. The EU might be included in the rotating scheme to hold the G7/G8 presidency. This would mean that another summit in Brussels might take place in 2022 at the earliest, if the G7 or G8 still exists.
A G7/G8 presidency for the EU
Given the informal and flexible nature of the G7/G8, the presidency can have a significant influence on the G7/G8 process.
It is the host leader's prerogative to set the thematic focus of the summit. Certain major issues remain on the agenda for several years, but the presidency usually adds a couple of its own topics as well.
The presidency would increase the EU's political clout. Hence the EU may use a future year at the G7/G8 helm to make its partners subscribe to ambitious goals in the field of climate change or development cooperation.
An upgrade of the EU in the G7 or G8 could also have implications for the EU's status in other international forums.
It might, for example, pave the way for hosting a G20 summit. In contrast to the G7 and G8, the EU is one of the 20 official members of the G20. But in the G20 too, it is deprived of the right to hold the presidency.
Any future EU presidency of the G7, G8 or even G20 entails challenges as well. The EU will for example have to consider how it will involve the EU member states that are not part of the G7 in its preparations for the summit. Can the presidents of the European council and the European commission determine the agenda autonomously or do they have to consult the 28 member states?
Intensive consultation and EU coordination seems incompatible with the informal and flexible G7/G8 process. However non-G7 EU member states also have the right to hold their representatives accountable for their actions.
But before the G7 leaders could possibly meet again in Brussels, it is up to Germany, as holder of the 2015 G7 presidency, to lead the group next year.
Peter Debaere is a post-doctoral researcher at the Ghent Institute for International Studies at Ghent University