High hopes for rich nations' G8 talkfest

By Catherine Field

Back in 1975, France launched the rich nations' forum, the Group of Six, in the hope of driving a clear path through Middle East tensions, oil shocks and economic difficulties.

As the years passed, the Six became Eight, as the original members - Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States - were joined by Canada and later Russia. And a relatively low-key forum gradually became a circus.

Gathered at vast expense in fortress-like locations kilometres from anywhere, leaders postured in front of the media, issuing an end-of-summit communique larded with lofty aspirations and weasel words before they jetted home.

Could this year's summit, in the nobby Norman seaside resort of Deauville, break with tradition? French officials hope so.

Less than halfway through a year that is destined to go down in the history books, the rich nations' club will assess the potential and risks of the Arab Spring and hear US President Barack Obama make his pitch for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, a scheme based on the borders that prevailed in 1967.

It will also look at the future of nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster and discuss the rewards and pitfalls of the internet.

Hopes are high that the talks, taking place in a gigantic underground convention hall, will be free-wheeling and spirited because they will be less burdened by political baggage.

This is because the "leadership" role claimed by the G8 for dealing with financial crises, trade, monetary tensions and climate change and other global issues has now gone to the Group of 20.

"The G8 should be a very informal arena for very open discussions, and without the need to spin," said a source at the Elysee presidential palace.

Security will remain tight, for it is the first G8 meeting since US forces killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Western nations struck at Libya.

More than 12,000 police and military personnel are being mobilised to monitor the roads and sea, but organisers insist measures are far less draconian than at previous summits. Protesters are being allowed to meet in Le Havre, 40km to the east.

The leaders of the interim regimes of Egypt and Tunisia have been invited to the summit, hoping for signals of financial aid and debt forgiveness.

"It is important for us to be deeply committed to the triumph of the ideas of democracy in Tunisia and Egypt, and that they spread across the Arab world, including Syria," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said.

There will also be pressure on the summit to send out a strong message on Libya and Syria, but this could be complicated by Russia, which has traditionally had close ties with those countries and is suspicious of Nato's support for the anti-Gaddafi rebels.

Other issues on the agenda include nuclear safety in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster and the future of the internet, where President Nicolas Sarkozy is demanding "values" and "rules" - so far unspecified - to fight cybercrime, sexual exploitation and terrorism.

Sarkozy yesterday opened an "e-G8" meeting in Paris gathering the heads of Microsoft, Google, Facebook and other giants, where he heaped praise on the internet for helping the Arab uprisings.

The June 2010 G8 and G20 summits cost an eye-watering C$1.1 billion ($1.4 billion), almost all for security.

- NZ Herald

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