Whistling in the wind

David TriesmanDavid Triesman on the government’s objectives for the G8 summit

The UK government is in desperate need of good news. That desperation is visceral and next week’s G8 summit in Northern Ireland takes on a sharp importance. It may be portrayed as a cosy fireside chat between relaxed leaders but the content of the final communiqué will provide a tough measure of success or failure.

David Cameron has rightly chosen his focus – all G8s have one. He trailed it at Davos. We seek progress on the terms of international trade to stimulate the world economy. We want international cooperation on collecting tax revenues due from reluctant individuals and companies. And we want new transparency in the global financial sector.

All of this is reasonable enough. With the UK economy flat-lining, much as the Japanese economy did over many years of stagnation, the Prime Minister needs a growth boost from somewhere. He won’t get it from his own Chancellor. The IMF has told George Osborne that his policies will in effect mean the next two general elections in our country will be fought to the harsh music of austerity.

Quite how global leaders with economic agendas as different as, say, Obama, Hollande and Cameron will find anything better than platitudes to express any goal is hard to see. Indeed, the best prospect for stimulus is a EU/US free trade agreement. It would counter the current tendency to nationalist protectionism, and if properly constructed could redress the wholly unfair competitive advantage rich nations enjoy over the poorest.

But there is every chance Cameron has set us on the road out of Europe to placate his Euro-sceptics. An own-goal.

On taxation and transparency, several warm-up meetings show a huge difference of opinion. The UK as G8 President wants cooperation on how and where taxes are generated, calculated to eliminate Google-style avoidance; but it is unwilling to hear any foreign view on our tax regime. The equally sensible appeal for transparency is made against the backdrop of telling others we won’t tolerate any arrangements London doesn’t like as the alpha world financial centre.

In both cases, the UK government is trying to have its cake and eat it – seeking cooperation on fundamental propositions from nations from which it is drifting toward divorce. Has it not occurred to Ministers that years of insisting partners are wrong on all these priorities and wanting no future depth of relationship (three cheers for every veto or pretend veto!) will disincline any partner to what the UK suggests?

Focus at the G8 is wise. But not slavishly. No discussion of environmental degradation, or the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran, or on Syria will mean poor preparation for tough times to come.

Finally, if the G8 sticks to UK priorities, some corner of the meeting must be devoted to the collapse of the Doha round. The G8 continually take more value in trade from Africa than they put in. Mispricing of African commodities, for example, drives African poverty. Inflated prices for our sophisticated products and lack of knowledge transfer make things worse. Given the potential for African growth, we would be wrong and myopic. 

Still, there is nowhere better than Northern Ireland to face and resolve the toughest questions.

Lord David Triesman is a Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister in the Lords

Published 13th June 2013

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