By Christine Hackenesch and Niels Keijzer |, German Development Institute

Date: 5/12/2016

How the EU intends to respond to global challenges and reform its own policies under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development remains tellingly unclear, write Christine Hackenesch and Niels Keijzer.

Christine Hackenesch and Niels Keijzer work for the German Development Institute / Deutsche Institut für Entwicklungspolitik.

Former German Chancellor Willy Brandt once famously observed that Europe cannot be an island of wealth in a sea of poverty. It is in the European Union’s own interest to promote sustainable development in Europe and in its relations with developing countries. Representing the largest economic block in the world, the EU, and its member states have a significant impact on sustainable development in other regions. The EU’s efforts to respond to growing refugee and migration flows show that the lack of sustainable development in other parts of the world poses a direct challenge to the continent.

The EU has been very influential in shaping an ambitious 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that heads of state and government agreed upon in September 2015. Illustrative of the political priority given, in January 2015 Commission President Juncker launched the European Year for Development, and motivated the EU’s position for the new global development agenda: “universality is fundamental: we should recognise that all countries have common challenges and opportunities for a shared future, and that we all need to make concrete commitments – both global and domestic – to make change happen.” However, a year later Europe does not seem to be in the best shape to lead the way when it comes to implementing the agenda and seems unwilling to commit to the universal agenda it has so vigorously advocated for.

On 22 November the European Commission published three policy proposals(‘Communications’) outlining how the EU intends to promote sustainable development in its domestic and external policies. The Communication on ‘European Action for Sustainability’ proposes the EU’s overall contribution to implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Secondly, the ‘Proposal for a new European Consensus on Development’ defines the EU’s vision how sustainable development shall be supported through EU development policy. Finally, the Communication on a ‘Renewed Partnership with Africa, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) Countries’ represents a first step to defining a European negotiation position for developing a new partnership with the 79 ACP states after the expiry of the Cotonou Agreement in 2020.

All three documents start from the recognition that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development should be a key reference point for European action. The EU acknowledges that it has taken a high stake in the development of the agenda and it highlights that EU policies will be key to implement the Agenda. Yet, how the EU intends to respond to global challenges and reform its own policies remains tellingly unclear.

The Communication on European Action for Sustainability summarizes actions that the EU is currently doing to promote sustainable development. Contrary to its title “next steps towards a sustainable future”, implying changes to be made in order to realise this future, the Communication assesses that the Sustainable Development Goals at the heart of the new agenda “are already being pursued by many of the EU’s policies and integrated in all the Commission’s ten priorities.”

The Communication on the European Consensus works very comprehensively through the different dimensions of the 2030 Agenda. Highlighting the ‘five p’s’ – people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership, the Communication sets the right focus. How does the EU want to contribute to those? The Communication highlights more coherent European action in development policy. This is important, as the current situation continues to reflect a European policy separately operating from the 28 member states’ own bilateral development policies. Yet, actual proposals how the EU and member states could make development and other policy fields (trade, migration, security, humanitarian aid) more coherent in view of supporting sustainable development remain vague.

Without having a clear and ambitious vision in which areas Europe needs to reform its policies to reduce the European footprint on global development, it is unlikely that Europe can engage in a meaningful dialogue with China, India or the African Union on the 2030 Agenda. As the implications of the Trump presidency for global sustainability policies remain open, European leadership is key. An ambitious vision for EU policies for sustainable development could be part of convincing answers to the challenges Europe is facing. In particular, it could provide an interesting narrative that would collide with European citizens’ demands for reducing inequality and strengthening social cohesion.

The EU proposals of 22 November shied away from experiments. It is now up to the other stakeholders to inject further creativity and ambition into the EU’s contributions to global sustainable development, including for its own sake.