What are the main variables on which the success of Italy’s presidency of the G20 in 2021 depends? The question is particularly relevant with only a few days to go before the end of a year that has made the need for – and the absence of – effective global governance mechanisms so evident.
It would seem only natural, therefore, to look with hope to the G20, a forum of nations that generate around 90% of the world’s GDP, to find solutions to the problems with which 2020 will leave us. The forum’s history, however, suggests a cautious approach. The trade-off between representativity and effectiveness is one of the most difficult obstacles to overcome in any international format, and on many occasions the G20 has proved no exception to the rule.
So, what attitude should we adopt to a picture so full of uncertainty? This is where the variables mentioned in the first paragraph come into play.
First of all, the agenda. The definition of clear but realistic objectives depends on the possibility of promoting inclusive formulae to which all the forum’s partners are prepared to sign up. In this matter, Italy will be able to exploit its recognised status as a force for dialogue and equilibrium. It is therefore worth us trying to be ambitious, while obviously avoiding wishful thinking. In terms of method, promoting dialogue does not mean befriending everyone at any cost. On fundamental aspects of our programme, we may have to proceed with only those partners willing to assume greater responsibility. In such cases, we should remember that “partnership” is not a synonym for “alliance”. In terms of merit, our credibility will depend on our ability to defend the Western values with which our foreign policy and our own national interest are so closely associated. Such values are broadly and appropriately reflected in the central themes of our agenda, which have been summed up by the three concepts of “people, planet and prosperity”. By promoting a pragmatic and result-oriented approach, we shall have an opportunity to engage our partners in decisive challenges such as climate, digital technology, and the debt of developing nations. Our co-presidency of the COP 26 and the fact that the next World Health Summit will also be held in Italy are happy coincidences that we can leverage to our advantage.
The next variable is context, a factor that is by definition as changeable as it is inescapable. 2021 will inevitably still be marked by the pandemic. It is nevertheless legitimate to expect that the start of vaccination campaigns will allow the problem to be approached from a more positive angle than mere containment, and will hopefully open up a prospect of gradually eliminating the virus. This complex task will require international coordination, and the G20 will be able to play a valuable role by safeguarding the needs of poorer countries. The objective of declaring vaccines a global asset should be seen in this context; Italy is working tirelessly towards it. The consequences of the social and humanitarian crises engendered by the health emergency remain to be seen once state support schemes are phased out, but they will be predictably severe. Reducing inevitable asymmetries will promote global recovery and relaunch the fight against poverty.
The third variable is the membership’s desire to cooperate on achieving shared objectives. On this point, it is doubtlessly best to adopt an approach of healthy realism rather than over-ambition. The G20 is a club whose members often have radically different points of view and interests, and this fact alone makes the search for agreed formulae challenging. The nature of the present emergency situation could nevertheless create room for manoeuvre and promote a more collaborative attitude, better inclined to compromise. With this in mind, we may also see as positive President-elect Biden’s declared intention to revive multilateralism, and the opening up to integration and free trade embodied by the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the announcement that an agreement on EU-China investment may soon be finalised. Increased dynamism is also being seen in the Asian democracies, which the West has every interest to subtract from the exclusive influence of Beijing.
On this basis, an EU unified by the outcome of December’s European Council, and facing the G20 without dissonance between its members states, could contribute to a more effective reconstruction of that three-cornered relationship with the USA and China that any realistic scheme for global governance must take into account. We already know the alternatives: a Chinese-American G2 or a G0 with no valid references. In either of these cases, Europe risks finding itself relegated to the role of battleground (economic, technological and regulatory) between the two superpowers. We therefore need to prepare for the coming appointment, and perhaps make the strengthening of trans-Atlantic relations once again centre-stage.
As a platform, the G20 has the advantage of bringing all the relevant actors together: it therefore provides an ideal opportunity for an exercise in this direction. Though it may not appear expressly on our agenda, it would, by its very nature, be an extremely significant “deliverable” for the Italian presidency. The variables, for their part, may actually be aligned in our favour.