By Deirdre de Burca and Leida Rijnhout, members of the SDG Watch Europe Steering Group
Following the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development by UN member states in September 2015, the European Commission slowly started to develop its own ideas and actions for how the Union – a unique, regional, political system – could implement this ambitious, universal agenda. EU member states also began focusing on how to implement this agenda at the national level. The European Council, composed of Heads of States and EU MS governments, issued Council Conclusions in recent years mandating the Commission to take specific actions at EU level related to implementation.
In late 2017, the Commission’s First Vice-President Frans Timmermans established a multi-stakeholder platform to be consulted on all topics relevant to the EU’s implementation of the 2030 Agenda, including an EC Reflection Paper on the development of a long-term EU sustainable development strategy.
Four years later, European civil society is encouraged by optimistic signs which suggest that this important agenda could be realized in the holistic way it was originally envisaged, both in policy and governance terms at EU and national level. For example, this year the EU Multi-Stakeholder Platform provided its input on the EU’s Reflection Paper. A positive attempt was made by the diverse platform members to develop a shared analysis and strong recommendations for the Commission.
New multi-stakeholder approaches to governance and policy development have the potential to break down the unhelpful “silos” which currently exist and present significant obstacles to the achievement of long-term sustainability. These new approaches can bring decision makers, civil society and other key actors closer together with the aim of cross-fertilising each other’s perspectives, and of strengthening common demands. Through working together collaboratively in this way, those committed to achieving sustainable development can hopefully succeed in replacing the current dominant and extremely damaging economic system which is destroying the environment and which excludes so many social groups.
However, much now depends on the political will and objectives of the new EU Commission under the leadership of its President Ursula Von Der Leyen. A “Green New Deal” is now one of the six headline ambitions of the political guidelines which recently issued to the next European Commission (2019-2024).
The original “New Deal” was a series of programs, public work projects, financial reforms, and regulations enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the United States between 1933 and 1936. The New Deal responded to needs for relief, reform, and recovery from the Great Depression. The contemporary “Green New Deal” combines Roosevelt’s economic approach with significant investment in areas such as renewable energy and resource efficiency.
The new Commission President has made the 2030 Agenda (SDGs) the responsibility of all Commissioners. Valdis Dombrovskis will be in charge of “refocusing the European Semester so that it integrates the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals”, while each Commissioner will “ensure the delivery of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals within their policy area”. While mainstreaming is a legitimate approach to implementation, civil society is concerned that this may become “away streaming” and that there will be a lack of coherent and bold leadership in EU implementation of all of the SDGs. Civil society believes that the responsibility for providing this leadership is at the highest level of the Commission, and should rest with the President herself. In the absence of such high level EU political leadership and coordination for the implementation of this holistic agenda there is a risk that different actors, including civil society, will remain in their silos and that traditional divisions will not be overcome.
In conclusion, European civil society welcomes the introduction of an EU Green New Deal, but only as an instrument to deliver on the overarching objectives of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This Agenda must be the overall framework within which a concrete social, fair and green plan of implementation is delivered by the EU.