Civil society responds to the European Commission’s UN report on SDG progress

SDG Watch Europe, a civil society alliance of more than 90 EU NGOs established to ensure the full implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the EU and its Member States, has criticised today’s publication of the European Commission’s European Voluntary Review.

Serving as the first ever Europe-wide Voluntary National Review of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the European Voluntary Review (EU VR) has the potential to spark a bold political reset of the SDG Agenda. However, the report published this week by the European Commission does not go far enough in its content or process, with civil society organisations and citizens left out in the cold as the report was drafted. 

As many independent assessments show, implementation of the SDGs has been lagging behind, and in key areas such as reducing poverty, tackling inequalities, and addressing the triple crises of climate, biodiversity and pollution, progress is going backwards. The Voluntary Review, which merely assesses what the EU has done so far and promotes its flagship policies, lacks any real vision for structural changes, nor does it provide an action plan at EU level to address gaps and challenges identified by civil society organisations on SDG implementation. 

The EU VR process should be an honest and forward-looking stock taking, as well as a steppingstone to an overarching strategy on the SDGs, complete with a fully financed action plan. As of now, it is not clear how Europe intends to make structural changes in areas where the data shows regression, and particularly where we see negative external impacts of Europe’s policies on the rest of the world.

Jeffrey Moxom, SDG Watch Europe Coordinator.

A key demand of civil society organisations was that the European Voluntary Review be an inclusive best practice in participatory governance which promotes and secures the genuine involvement of citizens and civil society, as many EU Member States had successfully done when conducting their own Voluntary Reviews. Despite a commendable effort from the European Economic and Social Committee to lead a stakeholder consultation, the EU did not succeed in properly consulting citizens during the first ever European wide review of the SDGs. Nor did it reach out to NGOs beyond Europe to hear how the EU’s policies are affecting them. 

Civil Society participates in the UNECE (United Nations Economic Commission for Europe) 2023 Regional Forum for Sustainable Development in Geneva, a forerunner to the High-Level Political Forum taking place in New York in July.

The lack of consultation with civil society in the preparation of the EU Voluntary Review is deeply disappointing. Article 11 TEU places an obligation on EU institutions to consult with CSOs to ensure open, participatory, and inclusive multi-stakeholder approaches, and the SDG agenda itself contains strong commitments to involving civil society and other key stakeholders in its implementation.

There is a clear need to shift from a tick box exercise to the creation of real opportunities for citizens’ and civil society participation to engage the whole of society for sustainable development and for the SDGs.

Manuela Gervasi, Senior Policy Officer for Public Participation and Sustainable Development at EEB and SDG Watch Europe Steering Group Member. 

As Europe continues to preach the values of participation, democracy, and openness to other countries around the world, Europe now needs to show real leadership on SDGs on the world stage, as governments and civil society ramp up preparations for the High-Level Political Forum in July in New York and the SDG Summit taking place in September. With many countries engulfed by stubborn inflationary economic crises and global shocks that risk erasing vital SDG progress, the EU will need to lead in reviving a spirit of multilateral cooperation and fostering the political will required to achieve the sustainability commitments made in 2015. In such a context, it is only logical that the EU takes further measures to reverse the negative trends highlighted in the EU Voluntary Review. 

With only seven years left to achieve the SDGs, the role of the incoming European Commission in 2024 will be instrumental in the success of Agenda 2030. The EU VR provides a first step, but it should be followed by the introduction of an overarching strategy on SDGs that ensures meaningful civil society participation.

Julie Rosenkilde, Director of Nyt Europa and SDG Watch Europe Steering Group member. 

SDG Watch members highlighted that the ongoing deficiencies in implementing the SDGs are structural in nature, and the EU must assume a leadership role in tackling root causes and transforming the current economic system. Only by doing so can genuine progress towards the SDGs be achieved. This will require courageous decision-making from policymakers, as well as collaboration and cooperation from all stakeholders. Daniele Taurino of the European Youth Forum an SDG Watch Europe member, commented:

It’s becoming increasingly clear that our current economic model, which prioritises growth and profit, is unsustainable and detrimental to both the planet and the people. The only way to achieve the SDGs is by pursuing systemic and coherent change towards a post-growth future that values biocapacity, equality, and the well-being of both people and the planet while creating a thriving and peaceful future that operates within the limits of our planet’s resources.

The European Voluntary Review can be accessed here.

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