G8 Summit Opens With Syria Looming Over Economic Agenda

Michael Teague  |

This year's Group of 8 summit opened up in the Northern Irish city of Enskillen on Monday in an atmosphere drenched with security precautions.

Varying reports estimated police-presence in the remote city at between 7,000 and 8,000, signifying the largest mobilization of security forces in Northern Ireland's history, and continuing a trend according to which G8 and G20 summits are held in geographic locations further and further out of reach of protestors amid ever increasing contingents of law enforcement.

While leaders from the U.S., UK, Russia, Japan, France, Germany, Canada, Italy, and two representatives from the European Union meet to discuss political and economic issues, much of the spotlight has been devoted to the private side-talks that will most certainly take place between President Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin over the ongoing Syrian civil war. Russia and the United States back different sides in the conflict and have exchanged increasingly heated rhetoric throughout the course of the conflict that has claimed nearly 100,000 lives since Syrian security forces opened fire on demonstrators in the central city of Homs more than two years ago.

Last week the White House upped the ante when it announced that it had conclusive evidence that the Ba'athist regime of Bashar al-Asad had used chemical weapons against the fractious and disorganized rebel forces, thereby crossing Obama's "red line" and prompting the administration to pursue its options with regard to providing arms to groups seeking to overthrow the government. In recent weeks, the Syrian government and allied forces have reversed rebel gains and re-captured cities, most recently the strategic town of Qusayr near the Lebanese border, and plan to take the fight to what's left of Aleppo, one of the oldest-inhabited cities in history as well as the country's economic heart.

While the Syrian conflict and its geopolitical ramifications will be taken up by the G8, as well as in private meetings between Obama, Putin and other leaders, the meeting is being presided over by UK Premier David Cameron, who has sought to focus the economic agenda on trade, taxes and transparency.

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At issue in particular will be the upcoming transatlantic trade agreement between the U.S. and the E.U. on which negotiations are set to begin in the near future.

The eight industrialized nations will also discuss different means of dealing with tax evasion and offshore tax havens. Each of the eight countries has its own troubles with revenue lost to unscrupulous banking systems in countries such as Cyprus, which despite its population of less that one million almost threw the global economy back into full crisis mode back in March in contentious negotiations with the EU, IMF, and the World Bank over a bailout deal for its vastly overleveraged financial industry.

Europe's banking sector in general is in a far more precarious situation in terms of liquidity, or lack there of, and leveraging, or excess thereof, than the U.S., and it is thought that the results could be near-catastrophic if a country larger than Cyprus and with a more significant economy, such as Italy or Spain, for instance, were to have as much trouble securing economic assistance in the event of a crisis.

By extension, Cameron is also expected to address the issue of transparency and greater coordination between countries so that law enforcement and tax authorities may pinpoint the actual proprietors of the various front organizations that are used to avoid taxes, keep assets hidden, and launder money.

The Syrian issue is set to dominate much of the press coverage of the summit given the opposition that pits France, the UK, and the U.S., against Russia, with Germany, the EU's economic powerhouse, holding to an overt policy of neutrality. But it remains to be seen whether the return of a cold war-esque posturing between industrialized global powers will hinder progress on the relatively modest but well-defined goals set out by Cameron over economic issues of concern to all present at this year's summit.

Of course, there is also the possibility that the politics could provide a distraction that would allow for work to proceed on some modest but much-needed reforms to the global economic system. Given the track record of these sorts of meetings, however, this remains for the time being a highly speculative, if not hopeful, outcome.

[Image via Flickr]

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