The EU is in the midst of major debates about its future. The next European budget is currently under discussion, the Common Agricultural Policy is up for reform, and the next summit agenda is crowded with headline issues like migration, security, and the Eurozone. With so much to be decided, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, already adopted by all EU countries, should not just be seen as something to guide development elsewhere in the world. Instead, the goals should be taken as the starting point for EU policy-making across all areas.

Although the need for reform is high, EU leaders struggle to agree upon a common course for the future. Ready at hand, however, are the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which set out a wide range of objectives with a target date of 2030 and so could a useful basis for discussion. More than two years after their adoption at the UN in 2015, the EU has still to fully embrace the goals and the process they signed up for. In 2018, the Commission will publish a ‘reflection paper’ explaining how it intends to work towards these 17 major global goals at the EU level. The real challenge is making sure that the paper has any impact beyond the ‘sustainable development community’, those international institutions, agencies, think-tanks, and NGOs already very much engaged in sustainable development or environmental issues.

Giving the goals their rightful weight

The European Union can take several simple to key steps to afford the SDGs the central policy-making role they merit. First, the EU should appoint a high-level panel tasked with looking at current EU policies and then devising priorities for 2030. These priorities must have targets to be achieved and monitoring indicators, and should be debated by the European Council and Parliament to fix the objective of a sustainable European Union by 2030. The European institutions should show how the next multiannual financial framework, which sets the seven-year budget for 2020 to 2027, will help achieve the SDGs, at least in areas of EU competence, and make it clearer to people how and where EU money is spent. More generally, the EU should draw inspiration from the many countries that have announced that they will use the SDGs to develop and assess their budgets.

The SDGs should guide for the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). As part of the reform process, the Commission should indicate which of 169 SDG targets are relevant to European agriculture and food and adapt them to the European context with quantified goals for 2030. It should also extract a set of indicators to assess reform options and monitor the implementation of the next CAP. Beyond these major ongoing debates, the SDGs are a chance for the EU is an opportunity to improve how policies are made more generally, for example by integrating them into the impact studies prepared by the Commission or into the European Semester.

The SDGs were adopted in September 2015 by all states at the United Nations. They are 17 goals, to be achieved by 2030, in areas as diverse as poverty reduction, the protection of natural heritage, and international cooperation. They are divided into 169 targets of varying degrees of precision and are accompanied by more than 200 indicators intended to monitor progress worldwide. Goal 10, for example, aims to reduce inequalities between and within countries. The first target under this goal is that by 2030 the income of the poorest 40 per cent must grow faster than the average income in each country. This goal of fighting inequalities between and within countries could also serve as a policy priority of a Europe 2030 strategy.

All countries – developing, emerging, or industrialised – are committed to action to achieve the SDGs both at home and abroad.

Beyond this set of goals, targets, and indicators, the SDGs are based on two major principles. First, the principle of universality: all countries – developing, emerging, or industrialised – are committed to action to achieve the SDGs both at home and abroad. The second principle is that of indivisibility: all objectives must be pursued together, to ensure a ‘coherent’ response. Thus, a country’s agricultural and food policies must ensure its food security, but also protect natural resources and health, ensure a decent standard of living for farmers, and not damage the farming systems of other countries.

Slow start from the European institutions

All states are bound to ‘implement the SDGs’ and account for their actions, particularly at the annual United Nations High-Level Political Forum. Each country is expected to adopt a strategy that sets out the main priorities for 2030 and how to achieve them. Countries are also expected to establish a high-level political governance to ensure that measures are put in place in a coherent way, monitored for effectiveness and, if necessary, modified.

While several EU countries have already started to implement the SDGs, the EU is only just starting to get moving. The European Commission’s communication in November 2016 was intended to establish the guidelines on how the SDGs would be implemented, but in the end it turned out to be a repackaging exercise. In essence, it explained that current European policies already contribute to global objectives and that the Commission’s priorities are aligned with these broad objectives. This suggests that nothing new or additional is needed to achieve the SDGs by 2030. A multi-stakeholder platform was nevertheless created.

Before the summer of 2017, the Council and the Parliament called on the Commission to be more ambitious. They asked the Commission to evaluate current European policies and identify the changes needed for Europe to reach the SDGs by 2030 (policy gap analysis) and to propose in a strategy for implementing the SDGs in mid-2018.

The lack of targets to be reached by 2030 on many subjects makes it impossible to say whether progress – if any – is sufficient.

In his letter of intent to the Council and the Parliament in September 2017, the President of the Commission Jean-Claude Juncker committed to submit a paper, entitled “Towards a sustainable Europe by 2030”, in 2018. In November 2017, Eurostat released an evaluation report on the EU’s progress based on around 100 indicators. This report has been subject to much criticism, as it is merely a draft of the policy gap analysis requested by the European institutions. The choice of indicators has been also questioned, particularly the lack of indicators to monitor the EU’s impact on the rest of the world. Moreover, the lack of targets to be reached by 2030 on many subjects makes it impossible to say whether progress – if any – is sufficient. Finally, by analysing trends, this report remains silent on the effectiveness of current European policies and their ability to put Europe on track to achieve the SDGs by 2030.

Using SDGs to discuss a common course towards 2030

That the goals are implemented in a niche represents a clear risk. And the sustainable development sector silo, often represented by environmental ministries, has no impact on major policy decisions. Similarly, the European strategy for sustainable development has yet to demonstrate an influence on how public policies are made in Europe. This kind of limited implementation would be particularly damaging, since effective implementation comes at a particularly important moment for the EU. In the run-up to the European elections and the appointment of a new Commission in 2019, the EU needs to start defining its main political priorities for the post-2020 period. Discussions are already underway regarding its multiannual financial framework and CAP reform for the 2020-2027 period, both of which are major structural questions. Europe’s future will be determined between 2018 and 2020, and if this future is to be sustainable, the SDGs can be both the affirmation of a political project and provide a framework of targets and indicators that can usefully contribute to the political debate. They have been adopted by all Member States, without exception, and are therefore a legitimate basis to start from.

The European strategy for sustainable development has yet to demonstrate an influence on how public policies are made in Europe.

For the decade 2010-2020, the Europe 2020 strategy was adopted, with five priorities: employment, innovation, education, energy, and poverty – with quantified targets. Then, in 2014, the Juncker Commission set 10 priorities for its mandate. It is certainly too early to determine, ahead of the political changes in 2019, what will be the main political priorities for 2025 or 2030. But it is time to launch the debate.

The SDGs are a legitimate basis for organising this discussion today. The Eurostat report published last November is a first step. It identifies worrying trends in around 15 topics that could become priorities where the EU could really make a difference. Two more steps are needed from this point of view: a technical step, to fill the gaps left by Eurostat’s work, (particularly to produce an analysis of the gap between existing policy objectives and results); and a political step, at a high level because the debate on EU priorities cannot be limited to a technical analysis.

How can we proceed? A group of recognised experts could be appointed by the Council and the Parliament and tasked with – on the basis of the gap analysis – proposing policy priorities for the EU. These priorities would be accompanied by monitoring indicators and targets to be achieved by 2025 or 2030. This group would report regularly on its work to the Council and the Parliament, it would consult citizens and civil society, and the final decision on whether this results in a ‘Europe 2030’strategy could then be taken after the European elections.

For a European budget and CAP reform that supports sustainable development

The Commission’s proposal for the next multiannual financial framework presented in May is currently under discussion. These discussions need to clarify the EU’s political priorities: what are the economic, social and environmental challenges that it aims to tackle?

Clearly, the budget debate should be closely linked to the debate on Europe’s top priorities for 2025 or 2030. In the very short term, the Eurostat report – even though imperfect – should be discussed in the forums where the budget is debated. The SDGs can also help the EU make its budget more understandable, particularly for citizens. The report of the high-level group on the European Union’s own resources, chaired by Mario Monti, proposes to restructure the budget to organise spending per goal. Thus, the SDGs can provide a suitable template for presenting the budget, at least in the areas that fall under EU competence.

The CAP is a key EU policy, that has accounted for almost 40 per cent of its budget. The SDGs are a legitimate basis for assessing the post-2020 CAP reform proposal. It is interesting to note that this Commission explicitly refers to the SDGs and lists the objectives to which the CAP contributes, which is almost all of them. But the Commission does not go further in the use of SDGs as a framework for analysing the CAP. As early as the first half of 2018, in the expected impact study, the Commission could provide details on these major global objectives and identify among the 169 targets those relevant for European agriculture and food, and in particular their impacts on the rest of the world. These targets should then be adapted to the European context and used to set quantified goals to be achieved by 2030. The SDGs can also be used to define a set of indicators that will make it possible to assess the different options for reforming the CAP and then, once this reform is complete, to monitor – in conjunction with civil society in particular – its effectiveness and the progress in terms of the transformation of European agriculture.

SDGs: a double opportunity for the EU

But many other European policies could benefit from an analysis framework underpinned by sustainable development. The ‘Better Regulation Agenda’, for example, could provide scope to ‘mainstream’ the SDGs, particularly in impact studies. Similarly, the European Semester, which sees the European Commission issue policy recommendations to EU countries, could become the mechanism for monitoring each Member State’s progress towards the SDGs, beyond its current focus on macroeconomic and budgetary reforms. The monitoring of Europe’s progress towards a circular economy could be enriched by the SDGs too, if only to integrate Europe’s impact on the rest of the world. In fact, the implementation of the SDGs is an opportunity to improve coherence between domestic policies and external actions across the board.

The SDGs are therefore an opportunity to make progress in many European debates and to generally improve the fabric of EU policies. If the EU implements them seriously, it could affirm its commitment to the multilateral system and its position within it, emphasising the importance of the political project of sustainable development that the SDGs embody.

The SDGs open up a political space that must be defended for a collective effort to address poverty, inequality, ecological transition, and development assistance.

Indeed, at a time when multilateralism is under pressure, the SDGs open up a political space that must be defended for a collective effort to address poverty, inequality, ecological transition, and development assistance. This space is all the more important for Europeans given that this international agreement embodies their development model. While all Member States still have progress to make to achieve the SDGs, eight of them are nevertheless among the ten most advanced countries in the world in terms of sustainable development. The goals should therefore act as an engine to drive progress in other countries. Unfortunately, the EU, which recognises the importance of the Paris Agreement in its diplomacy, still tends to ignore the SDGs. The 2019 High-Level Political Forum (to be held under the auspices of the UN General Assembly) could be the place to turn this around. As suggested by the Council, the EU should take the chance to present its actions at the UN and demonstrate its ambition in implementing the SDGs in the years to come.


This article is based on a policy brief by the same authors.

Cookies on our website allow us to deliver better content by enhancing our understanding of what pages are visited. Data from cookies is stored anonymously and only shared with analytics partners in an anonymised form.

Find out more about our use of cookies in our privacy policy.