Sustainability is the most imminent and urgent issue faced by the EU. Recognising the progress EU has shown towards sustainable development and challenges thereof, this essay considers the importance of global partnerships, particularly multi-stakeholder partnerships (MSP) and policy coherence for development (PCD).
Lessons from Millennium Development Goals
Throughout human history, the powerful used development as a tool and weapon against the weak. In periods of colonialism, developmentalism, globalisation, and sustainability, development has been a project of rule, with environmental consequences. It was always in the hands of the dominant rulers to decide what was ‘good’ for development. Those outside the commandeering group did not have much say in the decision-making or implementation process and were left to deal with the adverse consequences (McMichael 2012).
With the pace of development accelerating and the world becoming ever more integrated into a single global village, it became clear that humans were depleting natural resources faster than they are naturally replenished. Amid the concern that the earth may no longer be able to support human life if the world continued ‘business as usual’, 191 United Nations member states adopted the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000 with a primary aim of halving the population living in poverty by the year 2015.
The world learned a great deal from the experience of striving to meet the MDG objectives, but not without costs (World Bank Group 2016). Among them, three lessons stand out. The first lesson is that economic growth is not the best indicator for measuring development. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) measurements have two significant drawbacks: they hide the negative impacts of development, such as clearing of forests and enlarging landfills, and they ignore the social aspect of human development. Thus, many experts have called on the necessity to decouple development objectives from economic growth. Alternative measurement methods also have been proposed, such as the Social Progress Index, which makes use of 52 economic and non-economic indicators that closely match the Sustainable Development Goal objectives (Green 2015).
The second lesson is that many of the development goals are closely interrelated to the extent that focusing on one particular goal could delay meeting other goals or even nullify any efforts for positive change. For instance, much of the poverty alleviation during the MDG period was due to rapid economic growth, which also led to increased environmental damage and social disparity, in developing and developed countries alike (Green 2015).
The third lesson is that achieving sustainability requires the participation of both developed and developing countries, both public, private and civil sectors. The development plan should no longer be dictated by a few wealthy countries or particular groups of organisations, not only because our sustainable development goals are so enormous to require every resource available. Getting every state and every sector involved means that the playing field can now be levelled to restore the legitimacy of the whole development movement, breaking away from the past when the powerful dictated what was ‘good’ for development.
All of the three problems are adequately addressed by the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which consist of 17 goals, 169 targets and 232 indicators, a sizeable expansion from 8 goals, 21 targets and 60 indicators of the MDGs. There are many differences between the MDGs and the SDGs, the most noteworthy being that the SDGs have a much broader focus on poverty reduction, along with an integrated approach to environmental, economic and social aspects. Understandably, this integrated, expanded approach is attributed to the series of developments since the Brundtland Report, which defined sustainable development as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987).
Thus, the SDGs recognise not only the importance of environmental policy integration but also that transnational, trans-sectoral, and trans-policy measures must be taken collectively. The SDGs also require developed countries, as well as developing countries to participate in the global effort. Rather than having a small group of experts to design the objectives, the Post-2015 Development Agenda involved public sector, private sector, civil society organisations and academics from both developed and developing countries. The stakeholders participated to stocktake the existing gaps, identify relevant indicators, and arrive at the final SDGs. This underlying principle is well reflected in The Future We Want, the foundation document for the Rio+20 Convention where the SDG agenda was discussed:
“We therefore acknowledge the need to further mainstream sustainable development at all levels, integrating economic, social and environmental aspects and recognising their interlinkages, so as to achieve sustainable development in all its dimensions” (United Nations 2012:1).
The EU has adopted the SDGs and have integrated them tightly into its policy framework. With the inauguration of the Ursula von der Leyen’s Commission in late 2019, the EU has launched the European Green Deal, which sets out ambitious development goals that are in line with the SDGs. It is also important to note that Europe is the continent with the highest records of progress towards the SDGs and the EU boasts the highest share of its Official Development Assistance (ODA) per GDP in the world. The EU also benefits significantly from global trade, through which it has outsourced much of its manufacturing needs elsewhere around the world. This means that its ecological footprint is not fully recognised within the European continent, and it needs to exercise a higher level of responsibility towards sustainability efforts in other continents (SDG Watch Europe 2019a).
Global Partnerships for SDGs
In this context, the 17th of the SDGs—Partnerships for Goals—is significant for spelling out the implementation measures necessary for achieving the other 16 goals. Throughout history, humans have been able to achieve anything they set out to achieve. The real problem is not with humans’ inability to make achievements. The real challenge concerns how humans could be incentivised to recognise both short-term and long-term effects of their behaviour and to realise that every aspect of human life should be included in this endeavour. Thus, while all of the 17 SDGs are crucial for restoring the earth to sustainable conditions, achieving SDG 17 is vital for ensuring that all resources are used effectively and equitably to address the current challenges.
Thus, considering the resources the EU has at its disposal, the EU needs to engage in full-scale partnership with other parts of the world, namely multi-stakeholder partnerships (SDG targets 17.16 and 17.17) and policy and institutional coherence (SDG targets 17.13 through 17.15). The EU has aptly recognised the importance of global partnerships in the sustainable development context:
“The world today is more interconnected than ever before. The SDGs can only be realised with a strong commitment to global partnership and cooperation. Coordinating policies to help developing countries manage their debt, as well as promoting investment for the least developed ones, is vital to achieving sustainable growth and development” (European Union, 2019:329).
The EU has shown some progress towards multi-stakeholder partnerships, to have public, private, civil and academic sectors included in decision-making and implementation processes concerning sustainable development. However, SDG Watch Europe has severely criticised the EU of its lack of substantial progress in the area, putting multi-stakeholder partnerships as the number one policy recommendation (SDG Watch Europe 2017, SDG Watch Europe 2019b). SDG Watch Europe has also expressed disappointment in its reports concerning the lack of MSP meetings, as well as the lack of meaningful discussions at the meetings (De Burca & Rijnhout 2017).
On the other hand, policy and institutional coherence remain the most problematic issue of the EU in every aspect as far as sustainable development is concerned. The EU’s structural hybridity between intergovernmentalism and supranationalism has long presented obstacles towards its efforts of developing coherent policies. Galli et al. (2018) have pointed out that the EU lacks cross-policy coherence in the area of sustainable development and has recommended that a cohesive framework be set up to include a mix of policies that effectively address sustainable development issues. However, the European Commission (2020) has shown its intention to use the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and Common Fisheries Policy as crucial tools in meeting the sustainable development objectives. This appears to be in direct opposition to the problems identified by Galli et al. (2018). They have stated that the CAP, along with many other environment-related EU policies, is highly ineffective due to its political complications.
What, then, could be done to correct the EU’s lack of MSP and policy coherence concerning sustainable development? First of all, the EU member states (MS) should arrive at a shared recognition that sustainability is the most urgent issue the EU needs to address collectively. At present, the EU MS are politically divided over issues such as immigration, unemployment and European cohesion policy. These issues are undoubtedly important, but the EU MS need to recognise that sustainability is the most urgent of all problems, since our planet’s survival depends on it. Despite some shortcomings, the EU has shown its ability to work for the common good of all MS in the current COVID-19 pandemic, such as by issuing the coronabonds and coordinating the distribution of ventilators and other essential medical supplies (Deutsche Welle 2020). Sustainability of this planet is an issue as imminent and urgent as COVID-19, if not more. The EU MS must come together, put their political differences aside, and start working for the common good of not only the European continent but the whole world.
As for the actual method of overcoming the political division for the collective good of the EU, Renda (2017) argues that the EU’s regulatory framework could be streamlined around the European Semester and cohesion policy. According to Renda, one practical method is to guide the Multiannual Financial Framework (MMF) with the concept of European Added Value. This means that funding should be increased for specific policy areas that show ‘high value for money, but also a significant untapped potential’.
Echoing this idea, Fuest and Pisani-Ferry (2019) cite foreign economic relations, climate change mitigation, digital sovereignty, and migration policy and the protection of refugees as potential candidates of European public goods. They argue that this new focus on European public goods can effectively address the challenges the Union is facing today and present an opportunity to identify EU’s new own resources and free up the essential agenda from the trivial political conflicts (2019:47).
The introduction of new own resources, for the goal of maximising European public goods without putting an additional burden on EU citizens, also shines as the central theme in the 2016 report by the High-Level Group on Own Resources (HLGOR). They recommend, for example, reforming the EU budget to maximise European added value and achieve budget neutrality without increasing the overall fiscal burden and introducing new own resources including, among others, environmental taxes (HLGOR, 2016).
Development has been an essential tool throughout human history. For most of history, the powerful decided how development should be. However, in recent decades, the world learned that the natural environment is fast approaching its limits and all nations, both developed or developing, must work together to restore the sustainability of the planet. The EU’s role in achieving the SDGs is highly essential, mainly because it has the resources to meet the goals and is responsible for much of the natural devastation around the world. Recognising that a select few countries or organisations cannot achieve sustainable development alone, the EU must embrace the importance of multi-stakeholder partnerships and policy coherence for development. Overcoming political division between EU MS, it would be essential to identify and develop European public goods, along with Europe’s own resources, including environmental taxes. The recognition of such European public goods and implementing coherent environmental policies would be the first step in ensuring that the decision for ‘what is good’ is not monopolised by a few elite individuals but equitably shared across sectors, policies and countries.
- De Burca, D. and Rijnhout, L. (2017) “The EU’s Multi Stakeholder Platform on SDGs”, SDG Watch Europe, accessed 26 May 2020, https://www.sdgwatcheurope.org/eus-multi-stakeholder-platform-sdgs/.
- Deutsche Welle (2020) “Coronavirus latest: EU leaders want large recovery fund, stall on details”, 23 April, accessed on 26 May 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/coronavirus-latest-eu-leaders-want-large-recovery-fund-stall-on-details/a-53213299.
- European Commission (2020) “Farm to Fork Strategy”.
- European Union (2019) “Sustainable development in the European Union”, Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.
- Fuest, C. and Pisani-Ferry, J. (2019) “A Primer on Developing European Public Goods: A Report to Ministers Bruno Le Maire and Olaf Scholz”.
- Galli F., Favilli E., D’Amico S., and Brunori G. (2018) “A transition towards sustainable food systems in Europe. Food policy blue print scoping study.” Laboratoria di Studi Rurali Sismondi.
- Green, M. (2015) “How we can make the world a better place by 2030”, TED, accessed 26 May 2020, https://www.ted.com/talks/michael_green_how_we_can_make_the_world_a_better_place_by_2030.
- High Level Group on Own Resources (HLGOR) (2016) “Future Financing of the EU: Final Report and Recommendations of the High Level Group on Own Resources”.
- McMichael, P. (2012) “Development and Social Change: A Global Perspective”, 5th ed., Los Angeles: SAGE Publications.
- Renda, A. (2017) “How can Sustainable Development Goals be ‘mainstreamed’ in the EU’s Better Regulation Agenda?”, CEPS Policy Insights.
- Sachs, J., Schmidt-Traub, G., Kroll, C., Lafortune, G., Fuller, G. (2019) Sustainable Development Report 2019, New York: Bertelsmann Stiftung and Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN).
- SDG Watch Europe (2017) “SDG Watch Europe Position Paper on establishing a new EU Multi-Stakeholder Platform”, 21 February.
- SDG Watch Europe (2019) “EU needs strong leadership on Sustainable Development from Commission President”, 19 December.
- SDG Watch Europe (2019) “Who is paying the bill? (negative) impacts of European policies and practices in the world”.
- United Nations (2012) “The Future We Want”.
- World Bank Group (2016), “Transitioning from the MDGs to the SDGs”.
- World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) “Our Common Future”, Oxford: Oxford University Press.