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The G7 Summit: From London to Lough Erne

Sonja Dobson, G7 Research Group
November 29, 2020

Since the first G7 meeting in 1975, the United Kingdom has hosted six summits, starting in 1977 (see Putnam and Bayne 1984, 1987; Dobson 2006). The first three summits, in 1977, 1984 and 1991, were held in London, followed by one in 1998 in Birmingham, one in 2005 in Gleneagles, Scotland, and one in 2013 in Lough Erne, Northern Ireland.

This article first examines the British approach to each summit hosted by the UK and their key results. It then assesses the overall cadence of British performance at all summits from 1975 to 2019. On this basis it looks ahead to the summit the UK will host in 2021 to suggest what might be in store there.

London I, 1977

The first London Summit, hosted by Labour Party prime minister James Callaghan, was held on May 7–8, 1977. Japan had also made a bid to host, but with France's support and the UK's six-month presidency of the European Council beginning in January 1977, the UK was able to secure the spot of being the 1977 host. This was also the first time the European Council, then headed by a British national, would participate in G7 summits.

London I made 55 precise, future-oriented, political obligatory collective commitments. This was a major increase from the 10 commitments at the first, French-hosted summit in 1975 and the 10 from the second, US-hosted summit in 1976. The London I commitments focused on enhancing global economic growth, opening international trade, improving financial facilities and seeking cooperation with international institutions, reducing dependency on oil, and increasing the flow of aid and resources to developing countries. However, by the time the next summit came, London I's economic and energy commitments had been complied with by members at a low level of only 54%.

London II, 1984

The second London summit, hosted by Conservative Party prime minister Margaret Thatcher on June 7–9, 1984, was less successful. It produced 31 commitments, far fewer than those at London I, and lower than most summits in the years since.

London II's commitments covered monetary and budgetary policies, job creation to recover from the global recession of the early 1980s, and responses to drought and poverty in Africa, as well as the supply of oil in the Gulf.

However, members' compliance with their London II economic and energy commitments soared to a substantial level of 75%. This was higher than any previous summit save for the first that Margaret Thatcher attended in 1979 and for the one hosted by French president François Mitterrand in 1982.

London III, 1991

On July 15–17, 1991, Conservative Party prime minister John Major hosted the third London Summit, as the post–Cold War era dawned. It featured the G7 summit's first ever guest leader: USSR president Mikhail Gorbachev met with the G7 leaders right after their summit to seek their financial and political support.

London III produced 53 commitments, the second highest since London 2 in 1984 and behind only the 78 commitments generated at the US-hosted Houston Summit in 1990. Those commitments focused on economic policy and international trade, as had become standard, and extended to political security issues in Central and Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. There were also commitments on developing countries and debt, environment, drugs and migration. Members' compliance with their two London III commitments on climate change was a solid 69%.

Birmingham, 1998

The 1998 Birmingham Summit, hosted by Labour Party prime minister Tony Blair on May 15–17, saw important institutional reforms. It marked the official start of the G8 with a democratizing Russia, represented by Boris Yeltsin, becoming a full, permanent member, following his appearance at the "Denver Summit of the Eight" hosted by US president Bill Clinton the year before. Birmingham was also the first summit where the leaders met alone without their finance and foreign ministers, who had supported them at the summit table ever since the first one in 1975.

Birmingham produced a substantial performance. It generated 73 commitments, more than the first three summits but fewer than the following three. Birmingham's commitments covered sustainable growth in the global economy; growth, employability and inclusion; combating drugs and international crime; nonproliferation and export controls; and the Year 2000 Bug.

Compliance with the 13 assessed priority commitments rose to a solid 71%, in keeping with the G7's improving compliance in the post–Cold War years. UK compliance with these Birmingham commitments was a standout 94%. The Gleneagles Summit, on July 6–8, 2005, was the second hosted by prime minister Tony Bair. It was a strong success, by far the UK's most highly performing summit thus far.

The Gleneagles Summit made 212 commitments, the second highest total among the 30 summits held since the start. It was surpassed only by the Sea Island Summit hosted by US president George W. Bush the year before. The Gleneagles commitments, leading to the Gleneagles Plan of Action, Africa and the Millennium Development Goals. They included the global economy and trade, the Middle East peace process, and disaster risk reduction, among other issues. The UK also invited Brazil, China, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, South Africa, the United Nations and the World Bank to take part in the summit. It featured the Group of Five consisting of Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa, whose leaders joined with the G8 to sign a joint declaration, inspired by the deadly terrorist attack on London on July 7, as the summit got underway.

G8 members complied with the 28 priority commitments assessed at a strong level of 83%, much higher than the 71% from Birmingham seven years before. The UK complied at a very strong level of 88%.

Lough Erne, 2013

The Lough Erne Summit was hosted by Conservative Party prime minister David Cameron on June 17–18, 2013. With its priorities of trade, tax and transparency, it was a summit of substantial success in its commitments and members compliance with them. The leader of the Republic of Ireland participated as a guest.

The summit produced 214 commitments, about the same as Gleneagles in 2005. This was less than the four summits that followed Gleneagles but far more than the three just before Lough Erne arrived. Lough Erne's commitments focused mainly on tax evasion, corruption and corporate transparency, but the 214 commitments made also applied to the global economy and trade, Africa, anti-money laundering, open data and accountability, food security and nutrition, climate change, nuclear safety, counterterrorism and the Deauville Partnership with Arab Countries in Transition.

Members' compliance with its 25 assessed priority commitments averaged 79%, higher than every summit since Gleneagles in 2005. The UK's compliance was a very strong 90%.

British Summit Performance, 1975–2019

The UK's performance at the summits from 1975 to 2019 show British G7 diplomacy reliably contributes to the summit overall increasingly success. UK-hosted summits produced communiqués of average length from 1975 to 1997, somewhat shorter from 1998 to 2009, and then longer from 2014 to 2015. UK-hosted summits generated a number of commitments within the range of the seven- or eight-year hosting cycle surrounding them. The same is true for members' compliance with the priority commitments they produced.

Where the UK truly stands out as a G7 leader is in its usually exceptionally high compliance. Across the 572 commitments assessed for compliance from 1975 to 2019, where overall compliance averaged 76%, the UK leads all G7 countries in contributing to this result. Its average compliance of 83% is followed in turn by Canada at 82.5%, the US at 79%, Germany at 78.5%, France at 74.5%, Japan at 70.25%, Italy at 62% and Russia at 61% (when it was a member of the G8 from 1998 to 2013). The only member with higher compliance than the UK was the EU at 85.1%.

Prospects for the UK's G7 Summit in 2021

The 46th G7 summit was scheduled for June 2020 but was postponed by its host, United States president Donald Trump. Thus in 2020 G7 leaders only met virtually in March and April 2020 to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. It seems unlikely the United States will host a regular summit before the UK assumes the G7 presidency on January 1, 2021.

The UK has been preparing for its G7 leadership for some time, knowing its presidency would start as the same moment "Brexit" did. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that one goal of the UK G7 presidency will be to support the global efforts to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and focus on protecting British citizens. He has also highlighted climate change, as the UK hosts the UN's long-awaited climate summit in Glasgow in November 2021.

After a call with Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in early November, Prime Minister Johnson stated that they agreed "to work closely together and with international partners – including President-elect Biden – to champion openness, shared values and the rules-based system during the UK's G7 presidency in 2021." Other priorities for the UK's G7 presidency will be digital trade, women's economic empowerment, the environment, tariff reductions and greater powers for the World Trade Organization. The UK has been taking a stronger stance on its future G7 presidency than the United States has taken on its current G7 presidency. So 2020 might not have been a great year for G7 summits, but there is hope for 2021's G7.

Other Reading

Dobson, Hugo (2006). Group of 7/8. Abingdon: Routledge.

Putnam, Robert, and Nicholas Bayne (1984). Hanging Together: Co-operation and Conflict in the Seven-Power Summit. 1st ed. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Putnam, Robert, and Nicholas Bayne (1987). Hanging Together: Co-operation and Conflict in the Seven-Power Summit. 2nd ed. London: Sage Publications.

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Sonja DobsonSonja Dobson holds a master's degree in conflict studies and human rights from Utrecht University. She has worked with the G20, G7 and BRICS Research Groups since 2015, and has served as a compliance director for all three groups. She attended the University of Toronto and graduated with a bachelor of arts and science in African studies and political science.

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