In 1975 the world’s six major industrialized democracies (France, Germany, Japan, Italy, United Kingdom, United States), established a Group (G6) to satisfy the need for an informal forum for debate between the Heads of State and Government. The initial aim was to openly and constructively tackle the economic crises of the mid-‘70s, and especially the oil shock and the reform of the international monetary system after the end of the Bretton Woods system and the cancellation of the direct convertibility of the U.S. dollar to gold. The first Summit was convened at the initiative of the French Government and met in Rambouillet, near Paris, with the aim of debating global financial and economic issues within the framework of what was defined as an “Economic Summit” between the world’s six leading economies. The format was enlarged with the entrance of Canada in 1976 and with the participation of the then-called European Economic Community (later to become the European Union) in 1977, whose role was initially limited to its exclusive areas of competence. Starting from the 1981 Ottawa Summit, the European Union has taken part in all the following forums of debate and, although it does not chair the G7/G8 Summits, it is represented therein by the President of the European Commission and by the President of the European Council. The Soviet Union was first invited to debates organised in parallel to the London G7 Summit of 1991. Subsequently, the new Russian Federation was gradually included in the G7 process until the first participation of Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the Naples Summit of 1994, who was expected to launch the so-called G7+1 format, which was scheduled to meet at the end of each Summit. However, it was not until the 1997 Denver Summit that, upon the invitation of the United States and of the United Kingdom, Russia became a full member of the G8. The first Summit under the Russian chairmanship was held in St. Petersburg in 2006 while the second, which was scheduled to take place in Sochi in 2014, was suspended due to the Ukrainian crisis and replaced by a G7 Summit, without the participation of Russia, exceptionally organised in Brussels.
The G7 is not an international organisation but rather an informal top-level forum for debate that became structured over the years. Its main characteristics are its intergovernmental preparatory process and its informal nature and it has neither headquarters nor a Secretariat, nor a budget nor permanent personnel. The Chair is assumed by one of the Member Countries on a rotation basis and the Country holding the Chair in a given year is responsible for organizing the Summit and covering the associated costs, as well as proposing the working agenda.
Over the past decades, there has been a gradual extension of the agenda of the G7/G8 Summits with the addition of policy and security issues in the 1980s while in the 1990s the agenda started to deal with cross-cutting issues (trade, climate change and nuclear non-proliferation). The Summits of Heads of State and Government were originally based on a prevalently economic and financial agenda and were increasingly sided by a growing number of Ministerial Meetings (in addition to the G7/G8 Foreign Ministers’ Meetings, traditionally dedicated to international topics, meetings of the competent ministers were also held in the field of the Environment, Energy, Development, Labour, Justice and Domestic Affairs, Scientific Research and Agriculture).
The major players in the preparation of the Summits are the Sherpa (personal representatives of the Heads of State and Government taking part in the Summit), who are assisted in their Summit preparatory and supporting tasks by Foreign Affairs Sous-Sherpas and Finance Sous-Sherpas (see structure). For some of the more complex issues (combating terrorism and organized crime, health, development, nuclear security, etc.), ad hoc working groups are created.
In parallel with the greater number of topics and levels of cooperation in the G7/G8 format, also the Declarations made by the Heads of State and Government at the yearly Summits have become more complex. Declarations are not binding in nature but are important because the Heads of State and Government make top-level political commitments, thereby indicating the orientation that they intend to jointly pursue on crucial issues such as finance, development, the environment or security.
Starting from the 1990s, the liberalization of capital markets compounded with the complexity of new global challenges such as the fight against poverty and the new global economy, spurred the G8 to promote dialogue with Developing Countries and especially with Africa. With the economic and financial crisis of 2008 and with the progressive emergence of important new players on the international economic scene, global governance processes have been broadened during the last few years. Therefore the G20 was established in addition to the G8, which had a broader participation, more specifically of China and of the emerging economies (see G20), which in turn hold informal meetings in the BRICS and MIKTA formats.
As of 2010, with the progressive consolidation of the G20 as “the principal forum for our international economic cooperation” (Final Communiqué of the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh, in September 2009), we have witnessed a gradual refocusing of G8 Summit agendas on global governance and on the principal cross-cutting political issues.
In summary, long-standing experience has shown that the informal nature of the G8 has succeeded to facilitate open debate between a pole of politically harmonized Countries (albeit not necessarily in complete agreement on some of the dossiers), thus revealing to be an indispensable factor of success. The happy intuition that launched the process in the mid-‘70s still maintains its modernity in tackling the large number of international challenges.