7 Lessons from the G7 Youth Summit 2020
Last month I was honoured to represent my country as Head of the UK’s delegation to the G7 Youth Summit, an annual week-long summit of young leaders from G7 countries to negotiate and reach policy proposals on Peace & Security, Energy, Global Trade & Connectivity, and Education and Jobs. You can read the proposals here in our communique, which we presented to the White House and which will directly influence the G7 Heads of State at their own annual summit. With the US holding the Presidency in 2020, the summit was due to be held in Washington DC but due to the pandemic, was held virtually instead. With the UK hosting the G7 Presidency in 2021, I’ve reflected on the lessons I learned from the summit and I’m feeding these back into the UK Government as it plans for 2021.
The 7 lessons I learned
1. The importance of building a strong negotiating team and teamwork
I lead a delegation of 3 brilliant young Brits: Mohamed Abdelrhman, Zoe Martin and James Forsey. Combining forces before and during the summit was crucial to our success. Many countries’ delegations were spread out geographically and never met, but we luckily did meet for a day in London to bond, strategise, plan our approach to consultations and communications, and build a strong foundation for the 4 months of work ahead. Weekly calls, a social media rota for our Instagram & Twitter accounts, co-designing our consultation survey and supporting each other in chairing online focus groups were manageable as a team, but would have been a real struggle individually. Information-sharing during the negotiations and the summit itself was also invaluable. To meet the team, watch these 4 introductions below (the UK’s start at 26:00) or click on the delegates’ photos here:
2. Evidence and expertise are invaluable in multilateral negotiations with so many voices
All 4 of us negotiated within different tracks, myself representing the UK in the Peace & Security track. When there are 8 competing voices and views from the different delegations, credibility becomes essential. I quickly found that using our survey’s quantitative data on the priorities of UK youth, plus qualitative quotes from our focus groups and insights from expert policy-makers in the UK Government and NGOs (including ‘name-dropping’), helped build very compelling arguments for specific policy proposals that I presented on behalf of the UK. Some delegations hadn’t consulted young people in their country so widely and had difficulty influencing the others as to why their specific issues were crucial. Those who demonstrated expertise, however, were trusted to draft proposals and held a lot of sway within the negotiations – especially when it came to the crunch point and we had to argue for and against specific proposals.
3. Digital diplomacy does work and strong relationships can still be built virtually
Intercultural and relationship-building skills are crucial in international negotiations, and I was initially sceptical at how successfully group Zoom and Webex calls could replace face-to-face interaction – but after 2 months of weekly (sometimes twice-weekly) virtual negotiations, I can honestly say that my fellow delegates became firm friends! Many diplomats express that same scepticism, but I can now proclaim myself a fan of digital diplomacy. Those of us in European timezones were at a distinct advantage, in the middle of the two extremes: west-coast USA and Japan, but a bit of creativity and tech savvy goes a long way to make cross-border teamwork a success.
4. How to negotiate multilaterally and the role of bilateral tactics
In my day job I work on bilateral UK-EU negotiations, so a specific personal goal was to build my skillset in multilateral negotiations ahead of future career opportunities (potentially working in UK missions to the UN / EU / NATO, etc.) In contrast to bilateral talks, multilateral negotiations require very different tactics and approaches, and establishing your voice and position within a group is crucial. The loudest and most committed voices do get the most airtime. Building bilateral coalitions in the margins (in our case via WhatsApp) to jointly support a proposal and build consensus was a also huge part of it, where interpersonal skills count far more than in bilateral situations.
I noticed the 4 EU delegations (Germany, France, Italy and the EU) coordinating many of their proposals and holding parallel talks to build consensus, but equally I was able to build supportive relationships with the US, Japanese and Italian delegates in particular. Finding commonality between the countries’ respective issues and agendas was important, but these also varied significantly from country to country. For example, the UK, US and Italy were all strongly in favour of proposals to tackle cybersecurity, while the UK and Germany both strongly advocated for feminist foreign-policy and gender equality proposals to tackle conflict and instability.
5. How to resolve the toughest issues and reach compromise
The biggest disagreements and stalemates came down to philosophical debates. Certain delegations (including the UK) wanted to proactively name specific actors and countries that we observe violating the rules-based international system, while other delegations were strongly averse to ‘naming and shaming’. This produced an impasse over one specific reference to ‘coercive economic diplomacy’ exerted in developing countries (Google it to understand which country this refers to and why this is controversial), a policy which the entire French delegation opposed and over with they were willing to vote against the whole communique of proposals. Our attempts to resolve this impasse in a multilateral format of 8 had categorically failed, so I took a bilateral approach and privately negotiated one-to-one with the Head of the French delegation to find a compromise that would suit both parties. Reaching compromise was pain-staking, went late into the night, and neither party was totally satisfied, but that is often the case in a negotiation, and this one was no different!
6. The balance between recommending policies that will appeal to Heads of State vs. making a public statement for a larger audience
The primary audience of our recommendations is the G7 Heads of State, but we also had a secondary audience: the 700+ people who watched our summit everyday via livestream, the youths of our respective countries, media outlets and activist groups who recognise the platform offered by the G7 Youth Summit. This posed a dilemma: do we limit ourselves to proposals we think the likes of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Emanuel Macron and others will agree to? Or do we go all out and pitch the priorities of the youth we represent, regardless of the political appetite for them? We settled for a balance. Our proposals on climate security are necessarily extreme and our proposals on defending democracy directly address Trump and others, calling out the xenophobic rhetoric and misinformation that erodes global stability. To see our proposals on Peace & Security, watch our presentation:
7. The need to address current issues alongside longer-term structural problems
The G7 Heads of State summit notoriously tackles the topical issues of the day, while there are decades-long conflicts and problems that also need solving, even if they’re not in the headlines surrounding the summit. In our case, 2020 gave us more than enough live problems to tackle – a global pandemic to start with (we produced this early statement on the Covid-19 Response) followed by the Black Lives Matter movement that gathered speed days before our summit (see this statement on structural racism and police brutality drafted at pace during the summit itself). The dramatic events of 2020 and the disappointing lack of join-up between states really hammered home the need for strong multilateral responses to global threats, giving the G7 all the more criticality and urgency.
As it happens, just days before our G7 Youth Summit, Donald Trump announced the postponement of the G7 Heads of State Summit until autumn 2020 and his intention to instead hold a G11 meeting, including Russia, Australia, South Korea and India (which many suspect is an attempt to alienate China). Staying abreast of the coming challenges for G7 (and G11) states is our next challenge, and all 8 youth delegations will be working hard before then to communicate out our proposals and embed them into our respective governments’ approaches to the G7 / G11 Summit.
On a final note, I also look forward to getting involved in the UK’s Presidency of the G7 in 2021. It’ll be an exciting year for the UK to host, along with hosting the COP26 UN Climate Change conference – so watch out for opportunities to get involved!
If you’re interested in more insights into the summit, you can also watch my video diary from day 4 and my Instagram story highlights from the summit. To find out more about applying for this opportunity in future (via the Future Leaders Network) and the work we did building-up to the summit, read these two blog posts:
- Exciting news: I’ll be representing the UK at the G7 Youth Summit 2020 in Washington DC!
- My Journey to the G7 Youth Summit 2020: 1 month to go