You might think an innkeeper from Bavaria was an expert on world politics, after all the media coverage in the last few weeks. Wherever you look, the weather-beaten face of Dietmar Müller-Elmau beams back at you.
The 60-year-old owns the five-star hotel Schloss Elmau near Garmisch-Partenkirchen at the foot of the Bavarian Alps. The world’s supposedly most powerful leaders will meet there this weekend for the Group of Seven summit.
The host is actually German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but that doesn’t bother the king of the castle. Mr. Müller-Elmau has been using preparations for the summit to promote himself in a big way.
Meantime, his self-proclaimed “luxury spa and cultural hideaway” has been turned into something of a modern high-security wing in an Alpine fortress. The area is so heavily guarded and cordoned off that holidaymakers will have to avoid most Alpine passes this weekend.
The G7 meetings are not just expensive and – let’s be polite – thematically indifferent
At the nearby German-Austrian border, even the Schengen agreement – which allows citizens of most European countries to cross borders without passports – has been suspended to tighten security.
According to recent estimates, nearly 19,000 police officers will be guarding seven politicians from 30,000 G7 opponents. The total cost could come to more than €300 million, or about $340 million.
Those numbers clearly show how perverted the whole idea of a global summit has become. Politics as a spectacular event is no longer about content, but about plans of action.
The G7 today is all about the wrong people talking in the wrong place about the wrong issues.
Elmau is just a glorified version of Disneyland for world politicians. Each year somewhere on the planet, one of the big industrial nations creates a kind of Potemkin village – where a little group of leaders, accompanied by a sizeable entourage of delegations and journalists, can have their costly meetings and simulate reality.
Unfortunately only two things really matter to the public – the wasted money and riots.
And yet a majority of German citizens would not refuse a G7 summit on principle. They don’t have anything against Elmau, even if only a few will ever be able to afford to vacation there.
What upsets people most are the very clear costs. A taxpayers group calculates that the money for two days in Elmau would pay for 150,000 children to go to nursery school for one year.
When the world’s most powerful leaders met for the first time in 1975, many things were different. There was no Internet and hardly any criticism about globalization because it had only just begun. Telephones still had dials, war was of the cold variety, and the enemy was in Moscow, where it is again. That was only 40 years ago, but it was another world.
At the time, the collapse of the Bretton Woods exchange rate system made a new currency policy necessary. Also, the first oil crisis in 1973 required a joint strategy by what was initially six government heads – from West Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Japan and the United States.
That’s why the fireside chats in 1975, at the Chateau de Rambouillet near Paris, focused on questions of finance and economics. The leaders were not to be disturbed. They did not want their discussions to unsettle the markets, which were already nervous.
But the world rapidly changed. The G7 and then the G8 summits (first, Canada joined, followed by Russia) took on more and more issues and vaunted their own importance. That took its toll – on nerves and taxpayer money.
The summit in Lyon in 1996 cost $4 million. The meeting in Okinawa in 2000 cost $734 million – a sum not exceeded to this day.
In 2001, the Genoa summit cost less money (“only” $225 million), but saw the first death of a demonstrator. About 300,000 police officers faced 200,000 summit opponents.
As preparations for the yearly meetings grew more opulent, so did public pressure to justify the whole thing with some kind of history-making agenda. Participants could never live up to expectations.
It must have been something of a sensation at the Okinawa summit in 2000 when U.S. President Bill Clinton tried to implement a reform of the meetings. His idea was for each summit to deal with one clearly defined problem – and then find a collective solution. The idea did not meet with much approval.
And so participants continued to discuss everything and therefore nothing, looking for the lowest common denominator on any issue and a few uncritical resolution placebos.
Ask yourself: After months of media coverage, what do you know about the upcoming Elmau agenda?
It is about resistance to antibiotics, protection of the oceans and strengthening women’s place in society – all of them important issues. But the most spectacular moment likely will be the arrival of a few government heads from impoverished Africa, to discuss future development aid with the seven leaders of industrial nations.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s favorite topic, climate change, is good for churning out well-meaning clichés. But what use is a debate about CO2 if such important countries as China or India don’t participate?
Big global issues can’t be resolved in a few hours at a conference in the Bavarian mountain air, but surely have to be discussed urgently – matters like the sweet poison of low interest rates, the widening gap in the distribution of wealth, the spread of hunger, the refugee problem and ubiquitous terror.
The G7 meetings are not just expensive and – let’s be polite – thematically indifferent. They might even be counter-productive in an era when images really mean everything, and young protesters are visually more appealing than burly defenders in uniform.
There was just one positive photo taken at the last German summit, at Heiligendamm in 2007. It showed participants sitting happily together in an extra wide beach chair on the Baltic coast. The sun was shining and the political VIPs were laughing.
All of the other thousands of photos, videos and YouTube snippets focused on rioting in Heiligendamm. They also illustrated how democratically elected representatives of the people hide away from the people who elected them.
You don’t have to like G7 opponents or their arguments. You can call their actions hooliganism by the “couldn’t care less” generation. But you have to concede that their opposition – thanks to Facebook, Twitter & Co. – is now nearly as well organized as the summit itself.
That means there will again be no shortage of ugly scenes from this weekend’s summit in Elmau.
Dietmar Müller-Elmau, at least, will be hoping for good follow-up business. Better anyway than the Grand Hotel in Heiligendamm, which went bankrupt after hosting the last German G7 summit.
Thomas Tuma is deputy editor-in-chief at Handelsblatt. To contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org