World's most powerful club? What it means to be in the G20.

The Group of 20, meeting this weekend in Rome, gets talked about a lot these days. But how did this group of countries win the most popular table in the global cafeteria, how do their “huddles” work, and how much power do they really have?

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
Leaders meet at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh on Sept. 25, 2009. The member nations of the Group of 20 account for 60% of the planet’s people and 80% of the world’s gross domestic product.

The Group of 20 has morphed from its creation in the late 1990s as an international body to grapple with financial crises into a forum for addressing urgent problems like worldwide vaccine access and climate change. Whether the G-20’s structure suits helping to respond to the evolving needs of our times will be put to a test when the leaders of the world’s largest economies hold their first face-to-face summit since the pandemic in Rome this weekend.

Who’s in the fold?

The Group of Seven industrialized nations – which was the Group of Eight for a few years before Russia’s suspension over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula – is likely the better known “G” grouping.

The Group of 20 folds in all seven: Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States. Other members include a dozen other countries, established powerhouses as well as ones with fast-growing economies: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, South Korea, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Turkey.

The European Union is the 20th member, and since the EU consists of 27 nations – including three in the G-7 – the G-20 actually represents the interests of considerably more countries. 

How much does it count?

In terms of population and economic weight, the G-20 is impressive. The member nations account for 60% of the planet’s people and 80% of the world’s gross domestic product. There’s a lot of back-and-forth among members, too – the G-20 nations account for 75% of foreign trade.

How did it get going?

The Group of 20 is regarded as the premier international forum for economic and financial cooperation. In wake of a 1997 Asian economic crisis and its repercussions, G-7 finance ministers created the larger grouping in 1999 so other countries could have a say.

After the 2008 global financial crisis spawned by the subprime mortgage debacle in the U.S., Washington pushed for the G-20 to be raised to the level of heads of state and government.

The leaders, at their 2009 summit in Pittsburgh, declared they intended “to turn the page on an era of irresponsibility and to adopt a set of policies, regulations, and reforms to meet the needs of the 21st century global economy.”

Is the G-20 still relevant?

Some suggest a membership update could be useful, especially in view of the urgency to address climate change.

After the global crisis sparked by American subprime lending, the G-20’s “emergence as a forum for international policy coordination seemed like the only silver lining of that mess,” says Rosario Forlenza, a professor of contemporary history and anthropology at Rome’s LUISS university.

But he and others note that South Africa still is the only African G-20 country. When it comes to climate issues, “Africa is crucial,’’ Mr. Forlenza says. The absence of Nigeria, which has Africa’s biggest economy and largest population, thus appears as a glaring gap.

The heavy lifting

Before presidents and prime ministers arrive in Rome for the summit, “Sherpas” have been long at work to hammer out an agreement for the G-20’s final declaration. Referring in this context to diplomats or other government officials, the term “Sherpa” is used in recognition of the Himalayan people famed for their mountaineering expertise and who lead the way uphill to the summit.

As in a multi-act play, in the months leading up to a G-20 summit, ministerial-level meetings are held, ranging from the likes of foreign affairs, commerce, finance, education, health, and environment. These thematic huddles yield pledges.

In Venice this summer, for example, G-20 finance ministers lent their support to a sweeping revision of international taxation that would include a 15% minimum corporate levy in a bid to deter mega-companies from finding refuge in low-rate tax havens. The Rome summit is an occasion to seal the deal before the curtain comes down.

The road to Rome

Each year, the presidency of the G-20 rotates, and with it, the country that hosts the group’s annual summit.

Italy took the helm in December 2020. Going back year by year, previous summits were held in Saudi Arabia (in November 2020, a gathering that took place remotely due to pandemic precautions), Japan, Argentina, Germany, China, Turkey, Australia, Russia, Mexico, France, South Korea, Canada, the U.S. Britain, and the U.S.

At the heart of the matter

The G-20 summit gives host countries a chance to push for progress on issues they care about.

Italian Premier Mario Draghi is keen on empowering women economically. An economist who formerly served as president of the European Central Bank, Mr. Draghi often stresses how the sidelining of women from the workforce – often due to child or elder care needs at home — drags down economic growth. The 2014 G-20 summit in Australia set a goal of slashing the gender employment lag by 25% by 2025.

Outside the bubble

Italian security forces will be casting a wide and tight security perimeter around the summit site in EUR, a Rome neighborhood outside the city center notable for its Fascist-era architecture.

Protesters are planning events near postcard backdrops in the historic heart of the Italian capital to draw attention to their causes despite being kilometers out of earshot of the G-20 leaders.

Among them are Tibetan activists who have called a rally at the Colosseum for Friday afternoon, when most of the leaders arrive in Rome. The activists protesting human rights violations want a boycott of 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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