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Canada, Europe and the Economic Summits

Sylvia Ostry

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The innovation of the Summit can be seen as an institutional response to the combined effect of the weakening of the established system of cooperation occasioned by the breakdown of Bretton Woods and the first oil price crisis of 1973-74. The initiative for the first Summit (held in Rambouillet in 1975) came from Valery Giscard d'Estaing and Helmut Schmidt, both former Finance Ministers, and their proposal was based on the "Library Group" of Finance Ministers in consequence of having taken place in the library of the White House. These meetings were characterized by the small numbers attending, relative informality, and a lack of bureaucratic preparation. Perhaps portentously, the most contentious issue at Rambouillet turned out to be the choice of countries to take part. The Italians managed to convince the French of their need to attend, but the French vetoed Canadian participation. Canada, however, was invited to attend the next Summit in Puerto Rico by the U.S. host, -- again, over stormy French protests. Later the President of the European Commission joined.

In practice, the Library Group vision of the founders has been eroded in several respects, not only by the increase in size, but also by an escalation in formality, in the scope and preparation of agendas and an inevitable increase in publicity. Nonetheless this "vision" has served to constrain attendance and to prevent the summits from being formally integrated into the bureaucratic machinery of international economic policy cooperation. At the same time, in each country summitry has become a focal point for forward planning involving key departments of each government and meshing of domestic positions with respect to the major multilateral fore.

While the institution of summitry has remained rather stable since the late 1970's, there are indications now apparent of the need for change, if not immediately then certainly over the next few years.

Let me cite three developments which merit consideration in respect to summit structure.

The first, and in my view least significant, concerns Canada. The new and increasingly influential publication International Economy, launched in Washington several years ago, has introduced a feature entitled "Fax Poll" (a sign of the times!). The first poll published in the September issue posed the following questions, to which it invited a (faxed) response:

The replies, from a Canadian and Brazilian, both rejected the premise of the first question, which made the second question redundant. But both replies also raised questions about the appropriateness of the present summit structure, initiated as an ad hoc response to the world of the 1970's and no longer appropriate to the world of the 1990's.

The structure of the summit is inappropriate as the highest level forum for managing the political economy of global interdependence in two ways. One concerns the profound changes in Europe initiated by Europe 1992, to be followed by EMU and greater political integration. What is to be the role of the four member states vis-à-vis that of the President of the Commission and the Council of Ministers? As I will discuss shortly there have been problems in the sphere of trade policy, a Commission responsibility in the Treaty of Rome. What about macro policy after EMU? Apart from role definition, is double or even triple representation of "Europe" desirable? At some point in the future I believe these questions will have to be faced and answered.

Finally, the end of the Cold War and the transformation of the former Soviet Empire also has profound implications for all multilateral institutions including the Summit. Should the Soviet Union, still in military terms a super power if not a superenemy power, be included in the Summit? Already President Bush has mentioned the idea of inviting Gorbachev. How can a Soviet Union, facing years if not decades of economic and political transformation be effectively integrated into this small club?

One approach, which I would favour, would be to conceive of a two-phase or two-tier structure. The process of summitry involves a core agenda (broadly global economic management) and a priority-issue agenda, varying over time. Why not have a core membership and ,a variable, issue-specific membership? This structure would be more flexible and provide greater political legitimacy in the post-postwar world, permitting the Soviet Union and perhaps representatives of Eastern Europe to be present when making fundamental decisions affecting their future. The same would be true for discussions of Latin American or African debt or the environment. The countries most concerned with the policy impact of the specific issue should participate in the deliberations.

In a rapidly changing world, institutional rigidity impedes adaptation. As I have said, the summit is the least bureaucratized of the post-war institutions and therefore the most capable of change, if the will is there to do so.

Let me turn now from the Medium to the Message.

Source: Presented at the All-European Canadian Studies Conference, The Hague, 24-27 October, 1990. Unpublished. Reproduced by permission of Dr. Sylvia Ostry.

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