Making Germany’s 2017 G20 priorities a reality

Image: Buildings at Hamburger Hafen

Priorities for the Hamburg summit

There are seven months left until the 2017 G20 Summit takes place in Hamburg. With the German Government having released its priorities as the incoming G20 president in December 2016, what can we realistically now hope for in Hamburg? One way to think about this question is to cast our minds forward to July 9, the day after the Hamburg Summit, and consider whether the announced priorities are liable to have helped or hindered G20 negotiations in 2017. However, this raises a further question – what sort of achievements or progress should we be looking for to determine if the Hamburg Summit is a success?  

The first thing to say about the 2017 G20 priorities is that there are a lot of them. They each fall into one of three categories: “building resilience”, “improving sustainability”, and “assuming responsibility”, with each category containing five sub-priorities, as per the image below. While progress in the listed fifteen priority areas is important, the 2017 presidency will benefit from elevating a few of its priorities to the front of the negotiation queue at the Summit itself.

Image: Priorities of the G20 in 2017














Working out which of the above priority areas will have the greatest chance of success this year will in part depend upon how global events unfold in the leadup to July, but also on how Germany goes about strategically pursuing its agenda in the interim. Hence, while the future is always difficult to predict, this blog looks at a few constants every G20 presidency should consider in advancing its stated ambitions.

Will Germany’s G20 presidency produce a few key outcomes?

Every year, the G20 dips its toe into a wide cross-section of policy fields, and this year seems to be no different. After being ‘upgraded’ into a leader-led process in 2008, the G20 has dabbled – with varying degrees of success – in issues as diverse as digitalisation of the global economy, food-security, tourism, the ‘silver economy’ (eg. aging societies) and ending fossil fuel subsidies. While the desire to deliver a comprehensive and holistic set of policy statements at the end of a G20 presidency is understandable, or even laudable given the increasing complexity of global economic governance, wide-ranging discussions or even incremental advances across many areas should not be the raison d’être of the G20.

Although there is nothing particularly objectionable about pre-summit G20 negotiations broaching a wide variety of topics, the Summit itself, or even the finance ministers and central bank governors’ meetings beforehand, are more likely to return meaningful outcomes if the focus is centred on a handful of core issues. The participants in such meetings, especially leaders, have extremely limited time available for serious discussion, and the comparative advantage of tackling a few key items must be weighed against the time that goes into signing off or discussing the plethora of reports, policy toolkits, knowledge-sharing platforms and technical assistance facilities that every G20 presidency tends to produce.

Does the agenda allow leaders to take on globally systemic political ‘roadblocks’?

Insofar as G20 meetings can remind members to pursue more inclusive and sustainable domestic growth agendas, this is to be supported. However, at a time when the spirit of multilateralism appears to be vulnerable, the G20 can probably add the most value in countering the biggest risks to global economic and social stability, that simply cannot be resolved without multilateral cooperation. Of the listed priorities, trade and foreign investment, the international financial architecture (particularly the global financial safety net), tax cooperation, components of the 2030 Agenda, climate, global health, displaced persons, terrorism and anti-corruption are areas where the G20 can take actions that would clearly add value to, or even go beyond, the capacity of any individual member or alternative international process.

Each of the above issues has its own merits, but the potential for garnering enthusiasm among G20 leaders ought to be a factor in determining which path to take. Chancellor Merkel has clearly stated her intent to push forward global health cooperation, and her personal interest in this area may prove especially useful in negotiating the support of other G20 leaders. Depending on how presently unpredictable factors such as the Trump presidency or the Brexit negotiations unfold, 2017 may also present some interesting opportunities in the areas of trade and energy. Yet as per point 1, what matters is that a few globally systemic areas are targeted by the host that are enough to make observers, and participants, sit up and pay attention.

Does the agenda support implementation and monitoring of past and future promises?

No G20 host starts from scratch, and in addition to the diplomatic sensitivities that new hosts must show towards past presidents, continuity and accountability to former commitments are the clearest way in which G20 participants can continually justify the forum’s long-term worth. For example, in recent years, a significant amount of work and effort has gone into the commitment made at the 2014 Brisbane summit to lift growth by 2% above the then IMF projected growth rate. Yet in its October world economic outlook statement, the IMF downgraded global growth projections for the sixth time in row, and called on G20 nations to do more in honour their previous commitments to meeting their inclusive growth promises.

While the merits of the 2% objective have therefore been subject to debate, this is still one of the stronger examples of a clear G20 commitment that has been accompanied by an identifiable monitoring process (managed by the IMF). The long-term value of commitments without any such monitoring processes in place are highly questionable – the G20’s longstanding but not always convincing commitment to roll-back trade protectionist policies is a notable example in this regard.

Will the public care? Or understand?

The G20 leaders’ Summits were created so leaders could tackle the biggest contemporary global issues in a politically savvy and practical way, beyond the capacity of policy officials and bureaucrats. The implication of this assumption is that leaders would also be interested in tackling global issues that matter most for their own respective citizens. An agenda that does not resonate with the public is unlikely to remain long in the immediate priorities of participating leaders.

Inevitably, much of the public and media attention will be instinctively focused on the dynamic and interactions between President-elect Trump, Chancellor Merkel, President Putin, and potentially whoever wins the upcoming French election. There is also the possibility that Hamburg will bear witness to G20 protests of a scale not witnessed since the Toronto summit of 2010. To balance these more ‘personal’ stories about world leaders, such as the overwhelming coverage devoted to President Obama and an airplane staircase at the Hangzhou Summit, or to keep the media’s focus on the summit and not just the demonstrations outside, the key outcomes that Germany pursues must therefore also be politically resonant. In 2017, politically salient areas are sure to include persistently high unemployment (and underemployment), refugees, terrorism, geopolitical instability, and the tension between outward and inward looking trade policies. While good judgement is needed, the 2017 agenda at least allows for progress on these items.

Will countries actually do anything differently?

This is always a difficult question for the G20. Few international processes can claim sole responsibility for policy shifts by participant countries, although facilitating the development of consensus between major economies can justifiably still qualify as a useful contribution. Yet the G20 does not exist purely to promote dialogue – there are already more than enough entities for that. It may help to focus the mind of this year’s host if behind every policy discussion and proposal, there is a nagging thought in the background of ‘would we have done this anyway?’

Ultimately, the announced 2017 agenda has the potential to serve the German presidency well in its pursuit of a successful host year, but such an outcome will require a careful and strategic management of its stated objectives. There are many important issues G20 leaders could consider this year, but not everything can be a simultaneous priority – eventually, some goals will have to come before others.

Image: Hugh Jorgensen

Hugh Jorgensen works as a Policy Advisor in International Relations, G20 / T20