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Everything you need to know about the G8, but were afraid to ask

A gathering of some of the world’s most powerful people is happening up the road in Northern Ireland today and tomorrow. But what’s it all about?

Political painter Kaya Mar poses with a painting depicting the G8 world leaders, left ‘plus five’ leaders, right, pointing towards each other in blame for world problems as ‘the planet is sinking’ according to him. Pic: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis

THE 39TH G8 Summit of world leaders gets under way in Northern Ireland later today.

The meeting is taking place in the luxurious surroundings of the Lough Erne Golf Resort just outside Enniskillen in Co Fermanagh amid tight security and the expectation of protests.

The summit attracts the leaders of the world’s leading industrial nations and representatives from the European Union. But what’s it all about and what can we expect from the summit? explains…

Who are the G8?

The G8 are the world’s leading industrialised nations – France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and Russia.

In addition to this, and as home to 500 million people and 20 per cent of global gross domestic product, the European Union also participates in talks via the presidents of the European Council and European Commission. However, the EU cannot host or chair summits.

Here are the leaders we can expect to see a lot of in the coming day or two:

Click here to see a larger version of this image. Source: Wikipedia

How and why was the group established?

The group originated in 1975 when it was actually six countries – France, West Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US – thus it became known as the ‘Group of Six’ or G6. The following year Canada joined to make it the G7 with the EU also participating. In 1997 a post-communist Russia was added to the group.

Initially the countries came together in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis and one of the worst economic crises since the Great Depression. Finance ministers of the US, UK, France and West Germany met informally to talk about how they could solve the economic problems caused by the imposition of an oil embargo by Arab nations.

This led to a first formal meeting of  these four countries, along with Japan and Italy, on the invitation of French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing in 1975. The advantage of this summit to any other was that it allowed leaders to speak in a relaxed, informal setting. It all went so swimmingly that they agreed to do it every year under a rotating presidency.

As the years have rolled on the summits have become less informal, more structured and organised with a heavy security presence at each to protect these important world leaders and manage inevitable protests.

What do they talk about at these summits?

With the presidency rotating on an annual basis it is up to the president of the G8 to set the agenda and organise ministerial level meetings as well as the main summit of leaders of each country.

The official literature will tell you that the summits are “a forum that provides the opportunity for its members to co-operate in addressing global challenges”. That’s close enough to what actually happens.

Usually members will set out to tackle global issues through discussion and action and will try to reach a common consensus. There is usually a significant amount of groundwork done before the summit in the hope by that the time they meet over two-days during the summer leaders will find that consensus.

When it was originally set up the summits focused on economic and trade matters but in recent years they have focused on setting out ways of providing aid to the developing world, global security, the situation in the Middle East, and energy efficiency, which was big on the agenda in 2007 and 2008.

Pink Floyd reunited for Live 8 and the Make Poverty History campaign in 2005.

Before that, in 2005, many of you may remember the Live 8 concerts which urged leaders to Make Poverty History by forgiving third world debt and coming up with better ways of delivering aid, and more of it.

Other matters on the agenda in more recent years have been climate change, the situation in Syria, the global economic crisis and the debt crisis in the eurozone. This year the G8 is going back to its roots with economic and trade matters big on the agenda.

But does the G8 have any actual power?

The G8 should not be confused with some sort of administrative structure that comes up with laws and enforces them. It is not like the United Nations, the European Union or the World Bank. There are no permanent staff, no budgets and no offices.

With no secretariat and no policy-making powers the G8 can only agree on policies by consensus but has no way of ensuring compliance with these policies. There are no real checks and balances to make sure targets - if indeed there really are any - are met.

The only real clout of the G8 lies in its power and the fact that collectively the eight countries are responsible for around 50 per cent of global gross domestic product.

Members of international relief group Oxfam dressed as the G8 leaders in 2008

Sounds like a bit of a talking shop to me...

This is an accusation often leveled against the summits and their effectiveness particularly given the cost and the disruption they can cause in the area where they take place.

Furthermore, one of the world's largest and fastest-growing economies, China, is not among the G8 membership and neither is India nor any Latin American or African country.

This leads critics, and those often found protesting at summits, to say that the G8 consists only of an elite, self-selected group of industrialised nations, who are formulating policies and positions at the expense of everyone else.

But what has the G8 actually done?

Luckily, my colleague Gavan Reilly prepared this answer earlier.

What can we expect this year?

As chair of the discussions, Britain has three priorities - advancing global trade, ensuring tax compliance, and promoting greater transparency.

Prime Minister David Cameron has made the issue of tax transparency a priority particularly in the wake of a number of scandals in the UK relating to multinationals like Starbucks, Google, and Amazon not paying enough tax.

Since 2009 and the global economic crisis, summits have focused on growing the world economy and writing in the Wall Street Journal last month, Cameron said that completing a set of proposed trade deals could boost the income of the world economy by as much as $1 trillion.

British Prime Minister David Cameron

There's a big EU-US trade deal that has been in the pipeline for a while and Cameron will hope to advance discussions on that - even though he plans to hold a referendum on Britain's EU membership if re-elected in two years - as well as another mooted trade agreement between the EU and Canada.

On tax evasion and avoidance, Cameron believes that collective international action is the key here and talks about governments sharing information and setting international standards to ensure that no corporation can get away with not paying a fair amount of tax.

The EU estimates that every year around €1 trillion is lost in tax evasion and avoidance, that's the equivalent of the entire EU budget for seven years. The Guardian has a good summary of Cameron's tax wishlist and the troubles he will face getting what he wants.

On transparency, Cameron talks about creating partnerships with developing countries and emerging economies including those countries described as 'resource-rich' - usually nations with mineral wealth.

The idea is that these countries be given the requisite support to ensure that businesses operating in them are acting in a fair and proper manner and that these developing nations' resources are not lost to conflict, corruption and crime as has happened in the past.

Syria is also expected to be big on the agenda as the west struggles to even get both sides of the conflict there to the table for a peace conference. Other priorities at the summit including preventing sexual violence in conflict, establishing a global dementia initiative, rebuilding Somalia, supporting African development, and tackling global terrorism.

Why Lough Erne?

Barbed wire around the area of Lough Erne

As G8 president, it is at the discretion of the British government to choose the venue and this year it settled on Lough Erne. The location, a golf resort, is a few miles outside Enniskillen. In recent years more remote locations have been chosen in order to try and deter protesters from descending on a venue.

A metal barrier is being erected that will stretch for miles around the resort in attempt keep protesters out and the government here has just passed a law that will allow it to shut down the mobile phone networks if there are fears of a terrorist attack.

There will be additional police numbers and there is close coordination between the PSNI and gardaí with the summit just 11 miles from the Republic's border.

Does Ireland have any involvement?

Despite holding the EU presidency there is no formal role for Ireland or its head of government but given that the summit is only up the road, David Cameron extended an invitation to Enda Kenny to attend this week's event.

"This invitation reflects the fact that relations between Ireland and Britain are stronger than ever, as well as the particular choice of location for the summit," Kenny told the Dáil last week.

On the fringes of the summit, Kenny met with Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper yesterday and is expected to meet with Japanese prime minister Shinjo Abe later this week.

As well as that of course we also expect US First Lady Michelle Obama to visit the capital with her daughters, Sasha and Malia, later today while Barack Obama is up the North.

One last thing, is there any prospect of other countries being allowed join the G8?

As we said before, the G8 is not an organisation per se, but a grouping which has in recent years sought to forge alliances with other nations particularly emerging economics like India, Brazil and of course, China.

In 2005, British prime minister Tony Blair invited the leaders of the three aforementioned countries along with Mexico and South Africa to the talks, making up the G8+5.

However, talks to integrate these five countries into what would be officially a G13 have hit the buffers with the US and Japan opposed to enlargement. For a consensus forming body there is not much consensus on this particular issue.

Then of course there is the G20, the grouping of the world's major economic powers, who are primarily concerned with economic matters and hold bi-annual summits with the next one scheduled to take place in Russia in September.

It's been said in recent years that the G8's relevance has been usurped by the inclusive and, when combined, the more powerful G20 (which itself includes all the G8 nations) but there's no doubting the importance of the next few days which is why the eyes of the world will be on Lough Erne.

Read: 8 things that the G8 leaders should know about Sunday’s Cavan v Fermanagh game

G8 summits in pics: Obama smooches Merkel, yellow pants and colourful protests

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