Any discussion on the Group of 20, otherwise known as G20 needs elaboration about its history. It began in 1975 when France took the initiative of broadening the base after a dialogue with its Group of Six partners, also known as the G6-- comprising Germany, Italy, Japan, United Kingdom and the United States. This measure was taken to create a space for furthering discussion on the evolving dynamics within the international scenario, but not for decision making.
After this came the creation of the Group of Seven, with the addition of Canada in 1997. Russia was added in 1998. This transformed the matrix to the G8. After that in 1980, the European Union was invited as a "non-enumerated participant". Subsequently, in 2005 the UK government initiated the practice of inviting five leading emergency economies - Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa. Finally, in Washington, in 2005, the world leaders from the Group recognised the growth of more emerging countries, and they decided that a meeting of the 20 most important countries of the world would replace the G8 and become the G20.
It did not stop there. It was also agreed that in the meetings of G20 the United Nations, the European Union, and the major international monetary and financial institutions would also be invited. Spain is a permanent invitee, together with leaders of the Asian, African Union, of the New Partnership for Africa's Development, the Financial Stability Board, the International Labor Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the World Bank Group, and the World Trade Organisation.
However it has not stopped there. The host country can now invite some countries that it feels particularly associated with its foreign policy, during its year of Presidency. Until now, 38 countries have been invited due to this perspective. It needs to be also mentioned that Russia was suspended by the G8 in 2014, because of its annexation of Crimea,and has never been readmitted. This has happened despite the fact that Trump, in his inexplicable respect for Putin, asked for Russia's readmission to the G8, but this was refused by the other countries.
It needs to be also noted that the G20 is constituted by countries that are also involved in different and often contradictory groups. For instance, after Trump sabotaged the TTP (Transatlantic Pacific Partnership) created by Obama, the United States was able to put together--excluding China-- a diverse range of counter groupings aimed at formulating Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which puts together the same countries plus some others and leave outside completely the United States. It may be mentioned that this commercial bloc is the largest ever created and has 30 per cent of the world's population, and 30 per cent of the world GDP. However, the European Union has explicitly taken a path based on European nationalism. This has been done so that the EU is able to survive in the on-going competition between China and the United States.
Interestingly, in the G20, China sits with India, which is the only country that has refused joining RCEP, and who is clearly taking an alternative path to China's expansion in Asia. This approach has somewhat of a similar shadow in the case of Japan (very active in G7, in the G20, and has entered RCEP), which considers, like South Korea, a priority to limit the Chinese expansionism.
These devolving aspects have generated their own dynamics. Multilateralism and cooperation has come under attack, and also the role of the State and its function as guarantor of social progress, equity and participation. Many organisations have sprouted and weakened the UN. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989, a number of clubs of rich countries, like the G7, G8, G20 have started to substitute the UN. As a result there has been a subtle change in the multilateral platform where institutions like the World Economic Forum of Davos attract more important personalities than the General Assembly of the United Nations.
Italy which had been facing domestic political instability will hopefully now have a smooth run as the Chair of G20. One believes that swearing in of former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi as the new Italian Prime Minister will bring forth a constructive socio-political engagement within the G20 format. This scenario might also assist Italy in furthering the task of United Nations in promoting responsible global governance.
Such a scenario could also help address the mal-factors associated with the pandemic that have been generating difficulties. Despite these constraints, Italy will have to coordinate all the actors within the G20, including planning and hosting a series of ministerial-level meetings leading up to the Summit of Heads of Governments. In this regard Italy will hopefully promote the prospects of globalisation after the pandemic sufferings through close association and the finding of least common denominators between itself and the UN Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and also with the World Trade Organisation (WTO). This approach might lead to a meaningful platform.
Italy has already decided on an innovative agenda-- "The three P": People, Planet and Prosperity. This imaginative effort will be structured in the form of 10 specialised meetings related to Finance (Venice, July 9-10th); Innovation and Research (Trieste, Aug. 5-8th); and Environment, Climate, Energy (Naples, July 22nd). Beside these 10 specialised meetings, there will also be 8 "Engagement's Groups", with meetings related to business, civil society and youth.
Due to various factors the United Nations, in the contemporaneous world is discovering that it has lost ground as an acceptable meeting place. This is definitely affecting its ability to monitor and move forward ideas pertaining to better and sustainable global governance based on democracy and participation. One basic reason for this has been not only the safeguarding of national interest at any cost but also the manner in which some Members of the richest countries are behaving in their exclusive clubs- the OECD or the G20 with very different agendas and priorities.
We have seen in the recent past -- in November, 2020 -- how G20 Members under the Chairmanship of Saudi Arabia was unable to cancel the debt from Third World poor countries, which had become an additional burden of the pandemic for them and was causing disproportionate damage. The Secretary-General of the UN, Guterres had pressed for this decision. However, the G20 was only able to freeze the payment of the interest of such debts, for six months. This did not reflect any nobility on the part of the rich countries and amounted to nothing in terms of extending a multilateral handshake.
Decisions on many sensitive issues are now expected from the next G20 Summit in Rome, in November. Before that there is expected to be the Global Health Summit, called from the G20 together with the EU in May. It is understood that during this Summit, there will be deliberations on the many aspects related to the production of vaccines and vaccinations.
Portugal, as Chairman of the EU has also called for a very important Social Summit of the European Union around that time. In the Social Summit, Lisbon is expected to push for strengthening of social inter-active engagement in Europe. In this, there is expected to be close positive scrutiny of what had been attempted by Germany, the last Chairman of the EU. One needs to thank Germany for moving positively from the existing austerity dogma towards a plan of solidarity and institutional strengthening.
It is generally believed that Portugal will follow a similar positive path on the issue of climate control and technological development. Italy and the G20 need to work together with Portugal in this regard. This will restore faith and trust in institutional development through multilateral solidarity.
In terms of historical evolution the international scenario has now moved into a different format of paradigm. We are now in a phase, where symbols of nationalism, xenophobia, and sovereignty have assumed greater importance than simple cooperation. Military expenses are on a continuous increase. In 2019 they reached an unprecedented amount of US Dollar 1917 billion-- enough to solve all problems of food, health and education worldwide as this gamut would cost a fraction of the military expenses. Important institutions like the G20 will have to remember and understand the denotations and connotations in this regard. We must also remember that the virus, instead of uniting citizens, has further divided them and affecting democracy and democratic governance.
Italy, now the Chairman of the G20, has a difficult path ahead. However, we must desist from calling the glass is half empty. It is true that we have a Germany without Merkel but we also need to remember that Biden has taken over the helm in the United States. Consequently, by November the situation may improve. During the forthcoming Health Summit, it will also be clear that without vaccination in the world, rich countries as well as poor countries will not be out of danger.
As such, Italy and the G20 will have to work together to rally the 20 most important countries of the world, which include India and South Africa, towards a constructive path. This might facilitate the making of 2021 as a year of regeneration.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.