The realisation that the G20 is Europe’s Trojan horse struck me at the G20’s last summit in Pittsburgh a couple of weeks ago. The surroundings and atmosphere were strangely familiar. And then I understood; I was back in Brussels, and this was just a global version of a European Union summit.
It was the same drill and format. The leaders’ dinner the night before the summit; a day spent negotiating an impenetrable, jargon-stuffed communiqué; the setting-up of obscure working groups; the national briefing rooms for the post-summit press conferences.
All of these procedures are deeply familiar to European leaders – but rather new to the Asian and American leaders whom the Europeans are carefully entangling in this new structure. Watching an Indonesian delegate wandering, apparently carefree, through the conference centre in Pittsburgh, I felt a stab of pity. “You don’t know what you are getting into,” I thought. “You are going to waste the rest of your life talking about fish quotas.” (Or, this being the G20, carbon-emission quotas.)
As a result, the Europeans seemed much more tuned into what was going on than some of the other delegations. Puzzling over the new powers given to the IMF to monitor national economic policies in the Pittsburgh conclusions, I was interrupted by an old friend from the European Commission, who recognised the language immediately. “Ah yes,” she said, “the open method of co-ordination.”
Once the EU gets its teeth into an issue, it never really lets go. Processes started at EU summits – which often seem minor bits of bureaucratic paper-shuffling – often turn out to have important political implications, years later. The same could well be true of some of the decisions made in Pittsburgh – such as the language on tax havens and bankers’ bonuses.
From the very start, the EU advanced through small, apparently technical, steps focusing on economic issues – the so-called “Monnet method”. Monnet himself believed that Europe would be built through “the common management of common problems”. Is this so very different from President Barack Obama’s recent appeal for “global solutions to global problems”?
Of course, there is still a huge gap between the capabilities of the modern EU and those of the G20. There is no army of G20 civil servants to match the bureaucrats of Brussels. There is no body of G20 law and no G20 court to enforce the group’s decisions. Nor is there much immediate prospect that the US or China – both countries that zealously guard their sovereignty – will cede any serious powers to a G20 law-making body.
Yet the kernel of something new has been created. To understand its potential, it is worth going back to the Schuman Declaration of 1950, which started the process of European integration. “Europe,” it said, “will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements, which first create a de facto solidarity.”
The G20 now has some achievements and a burgeoning sense of solidarity between the members of this new, most exclusive, club. Who knows what comes next?
Of course, part of why I like this column is because it is such a happy message. And what about the G20 not having its own civil servants? Here's a blog post from Foreign Policy's blog discussing exactly that: Does the G20 need bureaucrats?