A solid foundation to put the EU onto a sustainable path requires urgent and concrete action

Yesterday, the European Commission released its long-awaited reflection paper ‘Towards a Sustainable Europe by 2030′, with a view of paving the way for the preparation of the European Union’s Strategic Agenda 2019-2024 and the priority setting of the next European Commission. The paper includes key policy pathways, enablers and three future scenarios to guide a sustainability transition. The reflection is accompanied by annexes with current initiatives and the EU’s overall performance towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) based on key trends. The contribution of the SDG multi-stakeholder platform, to which Social Platform has actively contributed as both stakeholder and co-editor of the report, is part of the overall reflection paper.

Social Platform welcomes the reflection paper and positively notes the cross-cutting effort which the European Commission has put into this work. While focusing on a selected number of policy foundations (circular economy, food systems, energy and a socially just transition) to make them ‘future-proof’, we acknowledge the attention given to addressing the social dimension of sustainable development with a focus on equality, inclusion and fairness. Addressing environmental sustainability and social justice together lays a solid foundation for advancing on a just transition to a green and net-zero carbon economy. We also positively note many examples of civil society contribution to the SDGs and the strong reference to the European Pillar of Social Rights, including the call for a concentrated effort to deliver on its principles on the ground.

On the other hand, the reflection paper does not come forward with more concrete initiatives which could better link policy and concrete enablers to the scenarios. In addition, while we note that social investment is mentioned as a ‘top priority’, the actual section on financing mainly focuses on the importance of private investments. An enabling framework for public social investments for the provision of public goods and social services, which should re-consider the role of the EU Semester and address EU’s fiscal rules, is not referred to in the paper. In addition, a stronger role for an EU Semester guided by sustainable development should be a concrete example of putting policy coherence for sustainable development into practice. We also regret that research and development, while a key enabler for achieving the SDGs, lacks an emphasis on co-production and knowledge transfer which includes all societal actors in their diversity, and only prioritizes business-driven and marketable solutions.

In our opinion, the presented scenarios should not be considered in isolation from each other. For instance, a comprehensive EU sustainability strategy with concrete and time-bound targets (Scenario 1) has to be considered jointly with the role of the EU Semester, the next multi-annual financial framework and sustainable trade policies (Scenario 2). Similarly, there should not be a trade-off between the internal and the external dimensions of sustainable development (Scenario 3), as only pursuing them jointly will allow the EU to foster synergies and limit negative externalities of internal policies on developing countries.

Finally, sustainable development cannot be considered a ‘nice to have’, but is a necessity to secure well-being within planetary boundaries for present and future generations. The reflection paper recognizes the crucial role the EU must play in the sustainability transition. Three and a half years since the adoption of the SDGs at UN level, the time is ripe to step up efforts and concentrate on concrete implementation. In our view, this needs to go hand in hand with an economic development model which overcomes the currently unsustainable path to growth and puts people and the planet first.