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Q&A: Genoa G8 summit

LONDON, England (CNN) -- With the G8 meeting in Genoa, Italy, July 20-22, CNN European Political Editor Robin Oakley answers some basic questions about the "Group of Eight."

Q: How did the summits come into being?

A: The meetings began as the "Library Group" founded in the 1970s by then-U.S. Treasury Secretary George Shultz. Finance ministers of the United States, France, Germany and the United Kingdom met for informal "fireside chats" to try to stabilise currency turbulence. Soon the Japanese were invited too. In 1975, with two original members, Valery Giscard d'Estaing and Helmut Schmidt, having become French president and German president, the meetings were turned into gatherings of heads of state and government. Canada and Italy soon joined and they became known as the "Group of Seven."

Q: But is it G7 or G8?

graphic G8 Summit: Genoa 2001

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A: Effectively from 1997, at the instigation of then-U.S. President Bill Clinton, it became the "Group of Eight," or G8, with the Russians attending most sessions rather than being invited along after dinner for coffee and cigars. It was a thank you to then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin for pursuing economic reforms and for not kicking up a fuss about the eastward expansion of NATO. Because the original G7 are effectively the leading industrial democracies and the Russian economy is still struggling, there are still some G7 sessions on economic affairs in which the Russians do not participate.

Q: They used to be called economic summits. Are they still?

A: Not really. The original idea was to boost co-operation between leading economic powers in fiscal, monetary and commercial matters. But the agenda has become steadily more political. Former leaders like German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were happy to co-ordinate strategic thinking in their fireside chats and to tackle common problems like drugs and terrorism, especially as the summits became huge media events and they needed some "meat" to put into their final communiqués. Often a current political issue dominates, as the Kosovo war did at Cologne, Germany, in 1999.

Q: What happened last time?

A: At Okinawa, Japan, in 2000, with the global economy relatively tranquil, the leaders agreed to speed up the process of debt relief for the poorest developing nations and to seek to cut the "digital divide" between developed and developing nations. They pledged extra funds for fighting AIDS, malaria and TB and set up a task force to look at renewable energy sources. Russian President Vladimir Putin used his first G8 to warn against the U.S. missile defence plan.

Q: Do the right people attend?

A: That question is being asked with greater force. The G8 are accused of being a self-perpetuating oligarchy representative of nobody special. They are not the eight most populous countries in the world, or the eight richest, or the eight most powerful in military terms. Some ask if such a group should be playing at running the world when neither China nor India is included and when there are no representatives from South America and Africa.

Q: Do they really settle big issues at these meetings?

A: No, but the civil servants whose efforts shape their discussions and who are known as "Sherpas" (after the Himalayan porters who help others to climb mountains) do help them focus attention on key subjects. The final communiqués are usually a triumph of recycling and somewhat bland in their promises to tackle issues like money laundering and drug smuggling. But the G8 summits do increase co-operation and help world figures get to know each other. Leaders do carry ideas away with them like presents from a party which help inform their own domestic legislation. Summits are also good therapy for world leaders -- there is nearly always somebody with a problem worse than yours.

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