Commission puts President in charge of SDGs - but concrete actions missing

Posted on 18 November 2020

Today, the European Commission has outlined how it is implementing the Sustainable Development Goals domestically, but it limited itself to providing an overview of mostly existing actions.
In its Staff Working Document, the Commission announced that President von der Leyen herself would now take on responsibility for coordinating these efforts through  a 'whole of government' approach, requiring coherent action across the Commission. However, further detail is still needed on how this will work in practice. The announcements were made concurrently with the Autumn package of the European Semester.

We welcome that the von der Leyen Commission is finally setting out its SDG commitments, although far more will need to be done for the EU to implement the SDGs. The fact that the President has taken on personal responsibility for supervising the 2030 Agenda’s implementation is promising and should breathe new life into the EU’s efforts to meet the global goals,” said Ester Asin, Director of the WWF European Policy Office. 

The Commission must now make use of upcoming policy opportunities to show that it remains true to its commitments. In particular, EU governance mechanisms - such as the European Semester or the Better Regulation rules - must finally prioritise sustainable development in order to meet the challenges posed by the climate and biodiversity crises.”

Civil society, the European Parliament and the Council have long been calling on the Commission to set out a Union-wide SDG implementation strategy. Whilst today’s announcement still falls short of that demand, Parliament and Council should seize the new momentum to show how they aim to achieve a better balance between social, environmental and economic considerations in their day-to-day decision making processes.

Plans for involvement of civil society yet unclear
While the staff Working Document includes efforts to engage with civil society, WWF regrets that a renewal of the Commission’s multi-stakeholder platform is not envisaged at the moment. This platform was an essential component in advising the Commission and it provided significant input on avenues for the EU to meet the SDGs domestically. However, the document calls for further means of exchange to emerge - one such avenue could be to link civil society more closely to the monitoring of the goals, building on the Eurostat annual SDG monitoring report to discuss how to correct course when the EU is not delivering, and reflect this back into the President’s annual programming. 

Better Regulation rules to finally prioritise sustainability over economic interests?
The document identifies policy coherence as essential to integrate sustainable development at all stages of domestic and international policy making. This raises the bar for the upcoming reform of the ‘Better Regulation’ rules, which must now deliver on this commitment by taking into account the impacts all policies have on sustainable development. Thus far, these rules have failed to properly assess environmental impacts of laws and policies.

In the upcoming ‘Better Regulation’ communication, the Commission must follow through by adopting a ‘think sustainability first' approach for all its initiatives. This means that all dimensions of sustainable development - economic, social and environmental - should be systematically considered in all impact assessments,” said Rebecca Humphries, Senior Public Affairs Officer at WWF European Policy Office. “As a member of the new ‘Fit for the Future’ platform, WWF will strive to ensure that the better regulation agenda serves as a powerful vehicle for driving SDG implementation in Europe.”

EU Semester should give way to a new way of measuring progress, following Covid-19
As part of its efforts to integrate SDGs into the Semester, the Commission has yet to live up to its own Strategic Foresight Report, published in September 2020, which recognised that the health crisis had ‘reignited the debate on what kind of economic growth is desirable, what actually matters for human wellbeing in a world of finite resources and on the need for new metrics to measure progress beyond GDP growth’.

As called for in WWF’s EU Wellbeing Economy report, a framework of indicators measuring our quality of life, wellbeing, health, and action on climate change and nature loss, should be used to determine whether the EU is successfully recovering from Covid-19, rather than GDP growth alone.

Notes to the editor
The Commission is expected to publish a Communication on better regulation before the end of the year, highlighting how the agenda and toolkit will be reformed to meet the commitments, including the Green Oath, of this European Commission.

Currently the ‘Better Regulation’ toolbox includes only one tool to assess environmental impacts and four for social impacts, compared to nine tools for economic ones. The tool for environmental impacts focuses only on climate change, therefore leaving biodiversity and resource use unaddressed.
Ursula von der Leyen
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