Harper has real street cred at G8

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Sun Media, Friday, May 27, 2011

The G8 summit has returned to France, where it began as the G5 in 1975, when Valery Giscard-d’Estaing proposed a “walk in the woods” at Rambouillet, where he hosted the leaders of the United States, Britain, West Germany and Japan.

The group expanded to become the G7 in 1976, when the Europeans decided to invite Italy and U.S. president Gerald Ford, who was hosting in Puerto Rico, included Canada to counterbalance overrepresentation by Europe.

Which is how Canada got to the table of the G7, which became the G8 in the 1990s with the inclusion of Russia. The G7 finance ministers and central bankers still meet regularly. The turnover rate among finance ministers is such that Canada’s Jim Flaherty, in office since 2006, is the ranking figure of the group.

Then there’s the G20, which includes emerging economic powers such as China, India and Brazil, which since the onset of the Great Recession in 2008 has become the leading economic summit club.

The recession remains the defining moment not only for the G20 and G8 as institutions, but for its leaders, many of whom have been either been booted unceremoniously from office (Britain’s Gordon Brown) or put on notice by voters in legislative elections (Germany’s Angela Merkel and America’s Barack Obama).

If there’s one thing Stephen Harper’s colleagues understand and respect as practising politicians, it’s that he got himself re-elected in the wake of the economic storm. Even more so, that he graduated from minority to majority status in Parliament.

They’re also aware that Canada has come through the recession in better shape than anyone else, with the lowest deficit and debt to GDP ratios in the group.

Eclipsed by the G20 as an economic forum, the G8 has developed an institutional focus on political issues, and this year’s conversation includes Libya, the Middle East peace process, and the need for a new executive director of the International Monetary Fund.

Harper may be taking a bit of distance from Obama on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Obama’s reference to “1967 borders” with land swaps on the West Bank was not well received by the Israelis, and he’s spent most of the last week clarifying, if not backtracking. Usually, the U.S. president looks over his shoulder at Canada and says, “they’re with us.” This time, not so much. Harper’s support of Israel is unstinting, perhaps making him a bit of an odd man out.

Clarity on Libya

On Libya, it’s time for some clarity on the end-game. If the objective is to take out Moammar Gadhafi, it’s time to say so. Meantime, everyone from Obama to Britain’s David Cameron is grateful for the way Canada has stepped up with air power and naval support for the UN-sanctioned, NATO led operation.

As for replacing Dominique Strauss-Kahn at the head of the IMF — here’s the deal. Since the founding of the World Bank and the IMF at the end of the Second World War, an American has always been president of the Bank and a European has always been head of the IMF.

Which is why French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde will get the call. This is fine with Canada. The problem with European banks, European sovereign debt, and the whole euro crisis of confidence, is in Europe. Let a European deal with it.

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