(Text by G-8 Research Group - University of Toronto, http://www.g8.utoronto.ca/what_is_g8.html)
Since 1975, the heads of state or government of the major industrial democracies have been meeting annually to deal with the major economic and political issues facing their domestic societies and the international community as a whole. The six countries at the first summit, held at Rambouillet, France, in November 1975, were France, the United States, Britain, Germany, Japan and Italy (sometimes referred to as the G6). They were joined by Canada at the San Juan Summit of 1976 in Puerto Rico, and by the European Community at the London Summit of 1977. From then on, membership in the Group of Seven, or G7, was fixed, although 15 developing countries' leaders met with the G7 leaders on the eve of the 1989 Paris Summit, and the USSR and then Russia participated in a post-summit dialogue with the G7 since 1991. Starting with the 1994 Naples Summit, the G7 met with Russia at each summit (referred to as the P8 or Political Eight). The Denver Summit of the Eight was a milestone, marking full Russian participation in all but financial and certain economic discussions; and the 1998 Birmingham Summit saw full Russian participation, giving birth to the Group of Eight, or G8 (although the G7 continued to function along side the formal summits). At the Kananaskis Summit in Canada in 2002, it was announced that Russia would host the G8 Summit in 2006, thus completing its process of becoming a full member. (See Delegations & Documents for a list of all summits since 1975.) The G7/8 Summit has consistently dealt with macroeconomic management, international trade, and relations with developing countries. Questions of East-West economic relations, energy, and terrorism have also been of recurrent concern. From this initial foundation, the summit agenda has broadened considerably to include microeconomic issues such as employment and the information highway, transnational issues such as the environment, crime and drugs, and a host of political-security issues ranging from human rights through regional security to arms control. The responsibility of host rotates throughout the summit cycle at the end of the calendar year, as follows: France, United States, United Kingdom, Russia (as of 2006), Germany, Japan, Italy and Canada. Throughout the year, the leaders' personal representatives … known as sherpas … meet regularly to discuss the agenda and monitor progress. In addition, the G7/8 has developed a network of supporting ministerial meetings, which allow ministers to meet regularly throughout the year in order to continue the work set out at each summit; these include the meetings of the finance ministers, foreign ministers and environment ministers, among others. G7/8 ministers and officials also meet on an ad hoc basis to deal with pressing issues, such a terrorism, energy, and development; from time to time the leaders also create task forces or working groups to focus intensively on certain issues of concern, such as a drug-related money laundering, nuclear safety, and transnational organized crime. The G7/8 provides an important occasion for busy leaders to discuss major, often complex international issues, and to develop the personal relations that help them respond in an effective and collective fashion to sudden crises or shocks. The summit also gives direction to the international community by setting priorities, defining new issues and providing guidance to established international organizations. At times, it arrives at decisions that address pressing problems or shape international order more generally. The summit members comply modestly with the decisions and consensus generated by and codified at their annual meeting. Compliance is particularly high in regard to agreements on international trade and energy, and on the part of Britain, Canada, and Germany (for analysis of compliance, see Analytical Studies). Summit decisions often create and build international regimes to deal with new international challenges, and catalyze, revitalize and reform existing international institutions. In recognition of its centrality in the process of global governance, the summit has always attracted the attention of thousands of journalists at each leaders' meeting, and of a number of countries seeking admittance to this exclusive and powerful club. It has also become a prime occasion for non-governmental and civil society organizations to advocate on behalf of their concerns. The annual meeting has been an opportunity for anti-globalization demonstrations since the Birmingham Summit in 1998; the protests turned violent in 2001 at the Genoa Summit, resulting in the death of a protestor.
For more information on the history and processes of the G7/8, please see G8 Online.