Hamburgdämmerung: The End of G20 as a “Premier Forum for International Economic Cooperation”?

By Jesse Griffiths, Director of the European Network on Debt and Development (Eurodad). Originally published at Triple Crisis.

The strangest aspect of the G20 communiqué, and the part that has dominated media coverage, is the section on the Paris climate agreement. The strangeness arises not because of the topic—the G20 has always played second fiddle to the UN on climate issues—but because, for the first time, a whole paragraph is devoted solely to one member, the USA, explaining why it doesn’t agree with the others, followed by a paragraph by the others explaining why they will go ahead without the USA anyway, including through agreeing a “G19” action plan on energy and climate for growth.

The climate change issue is a jarring symbol of the G20’s difficulty in reaching agreement. However, the Trump administration’s “America first” stance and resulting lack of movement on economic issues—the raison d’etre of the G20—is evident throughout the document.

Two things stand out.

Firstly, many key economic issues receive very little attention. The opening paragraphs on the global economy, trade and investment are masterpieces of bureaucratic obfuscation, offering something for everyone, while saying very little, and presenting no new initiatives. Financial sector reform—an issue at the centre of G20 work since the global financial crash of 2007/8—merits one short paragraph, with no new promises. The Action Plan which accompanies the communique has a more detailed summary of work in this area, highlighting that the G20 has essentially outsourced this work to the Financial Stability Board (FSB)—a worrying development given the major governance problems with that institution. In addition to being one of the least transparent and accountable international financial institutions, the FSB replicates the flawed G20 governance model, but makes it worse by adding the financial centres of Switzerland, Hong Kong, and Singapore to the G20 membership list (as well as Spain and the Netherlands).

Secondly, the continued expansion of G20 interest into a whole host of issues outside its traditional mandate is striking, with the G20 concerning itself with, for example, health, women’s empowerment, food security, rural youth employment, and marine pollution.

Debt Problems, What Debt Problems?

Shockingly, despite developing country debts reaching record levels, and a significant number of countries being in debt distress, not a single mention was made of the need to tackle current and future debt crises in the communiqué. This came after the Finance Ministers earlier this year ignored the strong work being done at the UN on the need for a fair and transparent debt workout mechanism to rapidly resolve and help prevent debt crises, preferring instead to endorse a two page Operational Guidelines for Sustainable Financing that simply emphasises better information sharing informal methods of creditor coordination. They are a step backwards when compared to existing guidelines such as the UNCTAD Principles on Promoting Responsible Lending and Borrowing, which have already been endorsed by the UN General Assembly.

The G20’s Action Plan also fails to mention the UN’s work on multilateral sovereign debt restructuring frameworks, and offers only one new initiative—a Compass for GDP-linked Bonds. While it makes sense to focus on linking debt repayments in bond contracts to the ability of the borrower to pay, the vast majority of low-income country debt does not involve bonds: countries suffering from debt crises need a comprehensive approach which deals rapidly and fairly with all kinds of debt. The way the G20 deals—or fails to deal—with debt issues faced intensive critique by Eurodad members and partners at a major event that took place alongside the Hamburg Summit.

The German government had hoped to make management of international capital flows a central issue at this G20, but, as Eurodad predicted, the issue merits barely a mention in the communiqué, due probably to long-standing differences between some developed countries that are keen to further liberalise international finance, and emerging markets, who are rightly wary of this agenda.

As noted previously by Eurodad, promises to conclude governance reform of the IMF by 2019 shows how glacial progress is, given that the last of these “every five year” reforms was concluded in 2010 (though only implemented in 2016).

Tax—A Blacklist of One

G20 efforts to tackle tax dodging by multinationals continue to centre on the flawed OECD Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) initiative. Eurodad has already noted the major flaws of BEPS—it lacks transparency, contains significant loopholes, and has failed to incorporate the needs and interests of developing countries, the vast majority of which have had little meaningful participation in decision-making.

In March, Finance Ministers called on the OECD to prepare a blacklist of countries not meeting “agreed international standards of tax transparency.” The result was that the OECD—a body that boasts well known tax offenders such as Luxembourg, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the UK amongst its members—produced a blacklist naming only tiny Trinidad and Tobago as “non-compliant” with international standards. Almost comically, the G20 chose to see this as a sign that all was well, and asked the OECD to repeat the flawed exercise for the next summit. Finally, the G20 leaders noted the work they are doing on “enhancing tax certainty” which previous Eurodad analysis suggests is an effort to shift attention away from ensuring that multinationals pay taxes in the country where they do business, to a focus on ensuring they don’t receive any surprises—in other words, protecting the status quo.

Private Finance

There is remarkably little in the communiqué on previous G20 pushes to increase the role of private finance, particularly for infrastructure. However, the leaders endorsed the Joint Principles and Ambitions on Crowding-In Private Finance, which Eurodad has previously raised concerns about, including its emphasis on mechanisms to “de-risk” private finance—a euphemism which can often mean the risks are not actually reduced, but simply transferred to the public sector.

As one centrepiece of its presidency, the German government had launched a new Compact with Africa initiative, aimed at encouraging foreign private investment in Africa, but this is not mentioned in the communiqué. Instead, the G20 groups a number of smaller initiatives under the umbrella of an Africa Partnership. Perhaps this downplaying of the Compact was due to the small number of African countries that signed up—only seven are listed in the communiqué—or it may be a response to the substantive criticism of the Compact and the real motives behind it. For example, Eurodad’s sister organisation, Afrodad, launched a comprehensive critique of the initiative, after consultation with groups from across the African continent. While noting that “the initiative could be beneficial,” Afrodad goes on to highlight major concerns, including noting that developed countries that support such initiatives are “in search of space for their expansionism” and that the end result may be “how to integrate Africa into the global division of labour … with Africa playing the same old role of raw materials provider.”

The “digital economy” was a particular focus of the German G20, which published a “G20 Roadmap for Digitalisation.” The G20 promise to “constructively engage in WTO discussions relating to E-commerce” is a warning flag for critics of the WTO’s work in this area. A recent analysis by the think tank the Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) found that current e-commerce proposals being considered by the WTO “are designed around a borderless, digitized global economy in which major technology, financial, logistics, and other corporations like Amazon, FedEx, Visa and Google can move labor, capital, inputs, and data seamlessly across time and space without restriction. They also want to force the opening of new markets, while limiting obligations on corporations to ensure that workers, communities, or countries benefit from their activities.”

Finally, green finance, a major topic of China’s presidency, seems to have been sidelined: it is not mentioned in the communiqué, though both the accompanying G20 Hamburg Action Plan and the Climate and Energy Action Plan take note of the work of the G20 study group on green finance, and the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures.

The lack of concrete outcomes in the G20’s core areas as the self-proclaimed “premier forum for international economic cooperation” underlines the governance shortcomings of the G20. As an informal club with no permanent secretariat and which operates by consensus, its ability to reach agreement can be held to ransom by powerful countries, such as the U.S., refusing to cooperate. This governance problem is inherent in the G20 design, which is one reason Eurodad and others have called for its replacement by an Economic Coordination Council elected by all UN member states, as proposed by the UN Commission of Experts on reforms of the international monetary and financial system.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

6 comments

  1. Disturbed Voter

    G20 is an example of a real conspiracy against the public, and the reason why fake conspiracies are injected into the alt-media to act as a distraction for the real thing.

  2. Chuck

    I am not proud to say that the G20 blather reminds me of the much misused term “affordable housing,” which, always transmogrifies into “you wouldn’t want those kinds of people in our neighborhood, would you?”
    And the other, “them as has, gets”
    Money, power, breed unfortunate results for the un-moneyed and the powerless

  3. PKMKII

    So going after a tiny, predominantly black island nation for lack of tax transparency while leaving the gross European violators unscathed, and more lopsided, globalized wealth extraction out of Africa. Neocolonialism is alive and well!

    1. OpenThePodBayDoorsHAL

      “European violators’?
      Um you might have a look at which companies are registered in places like Delaware and Wyoming. And then ask where the profits of Lockheed, Google, Apple, and Microsoft are taxed. Oh, look, nowhere. Then ask why the US Justice Department gave HSBC a wrist slap fine for laundering *hundreds of millions of dollars* for the worst beheading drug cartels. Or the 1MDB Malaysia scandal, where $4.5 billion in government bond issue funds went straight, and I mean straight (in single individual FedWire transactions > $800M) into the pockets of politicians with not a peep from FinCen or the US Comptroller of the Currency.

  4. digi_owl

    Sound like Africa is yet again going to be on the receiving end of a proxy war between old “empires” and upstarts.

  5. sierra7

    Just the existence of the “G-20” is a deep insult to the rest of the world! Just proves the point of the rest of us living within the shell of global corporate fascists. The entire global economic system must be torn apart before any real “progress” for humanity can move forward.

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