Heads of state from the Group of 20 are meeting in Washington this weekend to discuss global efforts to respond to the financial crisis. Members of the group are typically described as the world's 20 largest economies. If the financial crisis pushes No. 20 into a deep recession, does that mean it could get bumped off the next guest list?
No. The G-20 happens to include 16 of the world's 20 largest economies (PDF), but that's not a criterion for membership. Otherwise, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Sweden would all make the list. And if—like many economists—you use purchasing-power parity to measure the size of an economy, Iran and Poland could also make a case for grabbing seats at the table. In fact, there are no official rules on how to add or drop a country from the group, and the list of participating countries has stayed constant since the G-20's creation in 1999. At that time, four countries—Turkey, Indonesia, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia—were included despite GDP rankings ranging from 22nd to 29th. While Turkey and Indonesia have since moved into the top 20, Argentina has done the opposite.
The G-20's Web site does give some indication of how the initial member countries were selected: "[I]t was considered important that countries and regions of systemic significance for the international financial system be included. Aspects such as geographical balance and population representation also played a major part." (The European Union also occupies one of the body's 20 seats, despite the presence of several European countries in the group.) Membership was restricted to keep the group from becoming unwieldy, but that also meant a few countries that had been members of the G-22 or G-33—short-lived predecessors from the late 1990s—were left out in the cold. A few nations just missed the cut: Malaysia was omitted, for example—either for instituting currency controls or for putting its finance minister in prison, depending on whom you ask.
For the more exclusive G-8 conferences, the country hosting the meeting maintains a great deal of power over the agenda and which countries get invited as guests. The G-20, on the other hand, tends to be administered by a troika—including the current host, along with the hosts from the previous and upcoming meetings—which makes ad hoc invitations a little more complicated. As a practical matter, expanding the group permanently would probably require a consensus among all—or at least the vast majority—of its current members.
Judging from gross domestic product alone, Spain—now ranked eighth—would probably be the country with the most legitimate beef over its absence from the G-20's membership slate. This weekend, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero will actually be in attendance at the summit, due to an unexpected decision made by France. As the current president of the European Union, France effectively had two seats available at the summit. Last week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he would give one of them to Spain—an unprecedented move in the history of the G-20. (Spain is not expected to maintain its seat after the presidency of the EU moves on.)
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Explainer thanks Colin Bradford of the Brookings Institution and John Kirton of the University of Toronto.