Commission’s Sustainable Development Package must be taken further

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

The EU will have to up its efforts to tackle poverty and inequality if it is to meet the 2030 SDGs. [Klearchos Kapoutsis/Flickr]

The EU will not meet the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals without rethinking its approach to individual targets. So far, this has not happened, writes Damien Demailly.

Damien Demailly is the coordinator of the New Prosperity programme at the French Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI).

On 22 November, the European Commission presented its strategy for the implementation of the UN 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through three communications. For the record, all of the United Nations member states committed in September 2015 to achieving the SDGs by 2030. Reducing poverty and inequalities, ensuring access to quality education and social protection, protecting biodiversity and the oceans and providing (sustainable) development assistance for vulnerable countries. In total, 17 global goals comprising 169 targets were adopted.

This strategy, which will now be discussed by the heads of state and the European Parliament, covers both the EU’s external policies and its domestic policies. This is very good news: since the SDGs do not concern only the developing countries, they are not limited to the EU’s trade or cooperation policies. They also imply changes to domestic and European policies.

Another positive is that this package is led jointly by the Vice-Presidents of the Commission, Frans Timmermans and Federica Mogherini, and by the Commissioner for International Cooperation, Neven Mimica. In so doing, the EU is putting itself in an institutional position to ensure domestic and external policy coherence and to take account of the impact of its sectoral policies on other countries. First Vice-President Frans Timmermans’ leadership of SDG implementation in Europe is a good thing, as it is a precondition for ensuring political trade-offs at the highest level take account of potential synergies and conflicts between the different SDG targets, rather than continuing to work in the silos inherent to institutional operations. Agricultural policy, for example, should thus report more systematically on issues of employment, environmental protection and food security for the EU and its trade partners, something reflected by the SDGs and an issue Mr Timmermans will need to examine with the administrations responsible for these issues.

These communications are therefore a first and necessary step. But it is regrettable that the strategy does not go further, in particular concerning SDG implementation in the EU.

While Finland is currently identifying the targets on which it will concentrate its efforts, and Estonia, Norway and Sierra Leone have already defined their priority targets or even intermediate goals up to 2030, nothing similar has been done by the Commission, which has merely drawn up a list of current public policies that contribute to the different SDGs, without assessing the capacity of these policies to actually achieve the targets set. However, the SDGs cannot be achieved by maintaining the status quo. Whether for poverty or gender inequality, for example, the EU member states are in danger of failing to meet numerous targets if there is no new political impetus (as shown by the analysis of the French and Swedish cases). It will not be enough, as proposed by the Commission, to implement the policies already adopted and to conduct economic, social and environmental impact studies for future policies. The Commission must rapidly identify the targets that require changes to EU policies as well as to those of its member states.

The SDGs also raise another question that has not yet been addressed by the Commission. What is to be done about the international commitments the EU made when it adopted the SDGs that are more ambitious than the existing EU goals? For example, the SDG target of halving poverty by 2030 goes much further than the Europe 2020 strategy. Likewise, the target of reducing income inequalities does not exist as such in EU strategies. With the Europe 2020 strategy approaching its end, it is perhaps necessary to identify and then integrate these new commitments into a future Europe 2030 strategy. Aligning the SDGs with this future roadmap and including them in the indicators and objectives that help to steer EU action would without doubt send a strong message to the international community.

Finally, the Commission is still saying little about the mechanism for monitoring progress made by the EU and its member states on the SDGs. This monitoring cannot be limited to the annual publication of statistics by Eurostat: who would then make a political appraisal of the successes and failures revealed by these statistics? With the European Semester, the EU has built a powerful mechanism for monitoring the economic and budgetary policies of the member countries, which is gradually opening up to social and environmental challenges. Rather than creating an ad hoc mechanism to monitor the SDGs, why should they not be integrated into the existing mechanism.

Although these communications mark a first step for the EU in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs, others will be needed if the EU is to lead by example and demonstrate its commitment to these global goals, which it actively negotiated and which are consistent with the EU model: social justice, innovation and the protection of natural heritage.

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