It is time to move beyond a flawed G20

The writer, a former EU high representative for foreign affairs and security, is president of the EsadeGeo Center for Global Economy and Geopolitics

The G20 group of leading economies bills itself as the “premier forum for international economic co-operation”. But the Covid-19 crisis has laid bare its limitations. Despite repeated calls for the group to take decisive action against the health and economic dangers of the pandemic, its response has been timid at best. This lack of leadership is worrisome in the extreme.

On October 14, the finance ministers and central bank governors of G20 countries will hold this year’s final meeting and expectations are lower than ever. These meetings appear to have faded into near-irrelevance, and much of the blame lies with US President Donald Trump. His administration’s erratic and obstructionist attitude has hamstrung the group in recent years. Moreover, the G20’s credibility has taken another dent in 2020 because of Saudi Arabia’s lacklustre tenure as group chair.

Truth be told, the G20 displayed fundamental flaws even before the pandemic. These stemmed largely from its “membership by invitation” character and from its failure accurately to reflect the global distribution of economic power, let alone demographic trends. Such issues have eroded the group’s legitimacy and performance.

It is to be hoped that the outlook in 2021 will brighten in both the political and health realms. It will then be a suitable time to reflect upon the failures of international co-operation and to pursue much-needed solutions. Out of a wide array of possibilities for improving the global governance architecture, replacing the G20 with a better multilateral platform stands out as a particularly urgent endeavour.

To that end, my organisation has made a proposal to create a “Global Leadership Group” (GLG). It would build upon the potential that the G20 has demonstrated when at its best, as in 2009, while remedying its structural shortcomings. It addresses the G20’s legitimacy deficit in two ways.

First, it would determine the GLG’s core members (which would take turns in holding the presidency) on the basis of objective criteria, designed to include the most populous countries as well as the largest economies. Second, it would complement this selection procedure with further arrangements, such as a rotating participation of other countries. One non-core member per UN region would always be included.

The G20’s performance deficit is also addressed in two ways. The simplest is to broaden the group’s representation, while preserving a manageable size of no more than two dozen countries. There would be 19 core members — those whose combined shares of global population and gross national income add up to at least 2 per cent — and five regional representatives. The G20’s heft would be enhanced without compromising its decision-making abilities.

A more complex measure, aimed at improving performance, involves establishing a permanent secretariat, which the G20 lacks. This would guarantee the smooth preparation of meetings, facilitate continuity and reduce the impact of national organisational capacities as the presidency rotates.

Given the wide scope of the agenda the GLG would ideally embrace, it would be vital for its secretariat to have equally wide-ranging capabilities. Creating such a body from scratch, with the urgency the task requires, is virtually impossible. The best option would be to leverage existing institutions.

The most viable candidate for secretariat would be the OECD. This organisation has engaged in commendable efforts to promote economic progress over many decades, but its membership has not evolved in sync with global dynamics. However, its analytical and advisory capabilities make it one of the world’s most valuable think-tanks. Taking a truly global role would fit well with its avowed purpose of “shaping policies that foster prosperity, equality, opportunity and wellbeing for all”.

While there would be many formal and political hurdles to repurposing the OECD, such that it becomes primarily the GLG secretariat at the expense of most of its other activities, pragmatic options do exist. By way of example, the OECD Development Centre evolved by opening its door to non-OECD members. This could become a source of inspiration as we strive to reach the desired result promptly. It would require the far-sighted commitment of OECD members.

The combined result of a transparently determined membership and strong secretariat would make the GLG the platform for co-operation and leadership that the world has so sorely missed in the current crisis. The G20 is not up to this task. The sooner we accept this reality and move on, the better.


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