The Promises and Pitfalls of the 2030 Agenda for the EU and European Federalism

, by Hector Niehues-Jeuffroy

The Promises and Pitfalls of the 2030 Agenda for the EU and European Federalism

Few people remember the historical event that took place on Friday, 25th September 2015, perhaps because it failed to receive the media attention it deserved. Yet, all around the world, the outcomes of this event continue to be felt today, playing a major influence for many countries’ strategies and policymaking. On that day, following three years of heated discussions, the nations of the world adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda as their target, creating the closest thing to a global political programme. By contrast to older development agendas, the UN 2030 Agenda does away with the senseless separation of the world’s countries into developed countries – the role models – and developing countries – the laggards – and instead embraces the ideal of sustainable development. It therein acknowledges that, so far, no country has yet to achieve a state of sustainability that brings the environment, society, and the economy truly into balance with each other. Thus, even though the skyscrapers of Frankfurt or Warsaw, the fresh air and clean drinking water of many European cities, and the large swathes of European land under conservation might make that notion seem odd, the perspective of the 2030 Agenda conceives of Europe as a developing country – and, in a very important sense, Europe is a developing country for, despite its best efforts, sustainability remains a distant goal. Over the last few years, the impact of the 2030 Agenda has also slowly begun to leave its mark on European politics, most recently in January 2019 through the European Commission’s reflection paper “Towards a Sustainable Europe by 2030”. But why should Europe care about a UN agenda that ultimately speaks far more to the world’s poorest countries than to the average EU Member State? Is there a way for the 2030 Agenda to be leveraged for federalism and, if yes, what would a federalist programme based on the 2030 Agenda look like in practice?

For a European political agenda, the 2030 Agenda would need amendments…

As repeatedly shown by the EU’s reaction to the crises of the past decade, owing to the diversity of the Member States’ economies, societies, cultures, histories, and the corresponding variety of their interests, arguably the EU’s most pressing issue is a shortage of political cohesion, a lack of unity around a clear political agenda that commands consensus among its members. In this strategic vacuum, the 2030 Agenda has the benefit of having already been agreed upon by all EU Member States. More specifically, the 2030 Agenda represents a compromise for sustainability designed to be acceptable to all nations, the sum of which is far more diverse than the EU’s Member States. However, precisely because it was meant to be a compromise acceptable to all nations, the 2030 Agenda has also major shortcomings that limit its suitability in the European context. Where the EU’s fundamental values are respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law, the 2030 Agenda engages with most of these only in its margins – if at all. While the SDGs address various aspects of human dignity, they aren’t rooted in a human rights agenda – though, to be fair, even within the EU, several governments and a substantial number of EU citizens don’t appear to fully embrace that agenda either. SDGs 5 and 10 may fight for economic equality and gender equality, but this narrow focus fails to touch upon many other inequalities, such as social and political inequality. SDG 16 aims, among else, at improving the rule of law, but freedom and democracy remain absent from the 2030 Agenda. The 2030 Agenda also suffers from sensitive target conflicts, e.g. the simultaneous promotion of industrialization and climate change mitigation, which are already the subject of intense debates within and between countries, and would also need to be carefully navigated within the EU. Perhaps more importantly, the 2030 Agenda fails to tackle some of the issues that are pressing to EU citizens, such as the fight against terrorism and the search for a common European response to the issue of immigration. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that some of the issues most urgent to EU citizens – tackling poverty and social exclusion, fighting youth unemployment, boosting economic growth, fighting climate change, and improving consumer rights and public health – are, in fact, fully within the purview of the SDGs (in particular, SDGs 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, 12, and 13). Moreover, there exists nothing to prevent European politics from complementing an EU development strategy based on the 2030 Agenda with additional topics addressing the aforementioned caveats and shortcomings. Therein, however, EU leaders should tread cautiously in order not to compromise the 2030 Agenda’s key asset, namely, the consensus built around it.

… but it may well be the EU’s best shot at a clear and consensual political agenda

The consensual argument in favour of the 2030 Agenda’s potential role as a European political agenda should not be underestimated. In a Union where diverse Member States often struggle to agree on a course of action, it may provide a shared agenda for cooperation and action around which both Europe’s liberal and illiberal democracies can unite. Nor should it be considered only in the short-term: the experience of successfully implementing such an agenda together may well become a stepping stone towards constructively addressing more divisive topics such as immigration or LGBTIQ rights. However, beyond the consensus already underlying it, the 2030 Agenda also presents many other advantages that strengthen its credentials. Vital for political support, the 2030 Agenda is an agenda imbued with considerable ownership among Europe’s leaders, many of whom were personally involved in the negotiations from which the 2030 Agenda emerged. Through its thematic comprehensiveness – the SDGs address prosperity, nutrition, health, education, climate change, gender equality, environmental protection, sanitation and social justice, among others – the 2030 Agenda would be sufficiently broad to provide a framework for the Union’s overall development strategy. Within this strategy, the place of most Member States’ national priorities could be negotiated at the level of the EU. Moreover, the 2030 Agenda also provides a clear set of objectives in the form of the SDGs and target indicators for each goal. Accordingly, the Member States’ statistical systems have already been prepared or are preparing themselves to measure their countries’ success with regard to the SDGs, an important consideration since only adequate measurement will allow countries to consistently make progress towards achieving the SDGs and gear their development models towards sustainability. In the end, despite being an agenda of the “highest common denominator”, the 2030 Agenda likely constitutes Europe’s best shot at having an agenda for concerted political action that is both clear, consensual, and capable of claiming public support. The Agenda ultimately directs efforts towards turning our continent into a place to be handed over to future generations at least as inclusive, eco-friendly, and prosperous as it is today.

The seeds of an SDG-based agenda are already sown, now federalism should fertilize them

The 2030 Agenda has already made its first steps in European politics: in its 2016 communication “Next steps for a sustainable European future – European action for sustainability”, the European Commission vowed to “fully integrate the SDGs in the European policy framework and current Commission priorities”, followed by a resolution on “EU action for sustainability” by the European Parliament in summer 2017 and the creation of a high-level multi-stakeholder platform to foster the implementation of the SDGs in the Union. One major outcome of the Commission’s efforts in this area has been “Towards a Sustainable Europe by 2030”, a reflection paper that outlines which policy foundations and enabling factors will be essential to move Europe towards sustainability and describes extensively the EU’s performance on the SDGs. Alongside this conceptual progression; an increasing number of European politicians at the local, national, and European levels, including prominent figures such as Udo Bullmann, the leader of the Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, have clearly called for the EU to prioritise the SDGs, e.g. through clear budget commitments. Perhaps most importantly, however, the SDGs cover many of the topics that are among the biggest concerns of the Union’s citizens, such as economic growth, the fight against youth unemployment, the mitigation of climate change and protection of the environment, or the social security of EU citizens. Crucially for all those longing for a federal Europe (including myself), the 2030 Agenda presents the federalist movement with a political vision around which to unite itself and around which to unite large swathes of European citizens whose concerns would be addressed by that vision without emphasizing the issues upon which they are divided. In the true spirit of federalism, i.e., due respect for Member States’ diverse particularities, preferences and prerogatives, a federalist agenda based on the SDGs would leave most of the fields not addressed by the 2030 Agenda to the full or shared scrutiny of the Member States. This federalist approach is necessary in order to give Member States sufficient policy space to address topics that remain unaddressed by the 2030 Agenda yet that are priorities for their respective populations, especially immigration and security, without compromising the overarching goal of further federating European countries. In the main case where the imprint of the 2030 Agenda on a federalist is unmistakable, namely, in Volt Europa’s Amsterdam Declaration, the consensus afforded by the topic of sustainability has been squandered through the adoption of intransigently “progressive” positions on various contentious issues. Unfortunately, this likely implies that Volt Europa’s appeal will remain restricted to the progressive fringe of federalists, thus acting as both a guarantee for the organization’s ongoing political irrelevance and yet another missed opportunity for federalism to penetrate the political mainstream further. If they want to unite Europe around a common, SDG-based agenda, federalists will have to march under the twin flags of both sustainability and real federalism.

Next stop: an agenda for a sustainable and federal Europe by 2030

If the federalist movement (or parts of it) finds value in an approach rooted in the 2030 Agenda, the next step will be the design of a strategy for a sustainable Europe by 2030. The EU’s SDG Multi-Stakeholder Platform, which has called for the development of such a strategy and the involvement of “civil society, social partners, educational institutions, industry, regions and cities”, may offer a promising platform for this endeavour. More importantly, active participation in this dialogue might afford the federalist movement an excellent opportunity to reach out to parts of civil society that are unaffiliated with federalism and to ultimately gain their support for the federalist cause. Along with the development of the aforementioned strategy, the federalist movement may want to create a roadmap with timelines, objectives and measures and use it to develop a results-oriented political programme. This political programme will need to weigh and balance the objective priorities of the 2030 Agenda in Europe with the subjective priorities of Europe’s citizens, as described further above. What guidance could the SDGs provide for such a political programme? With regard to the SDGs, the EU performs worst with regard to ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns (SDG 12), the conservation and sustainable use of oceans, seas and marine resources (SDG 14), and global partnerships (SDG 17), none of which are among the top concerns of EU citizens. This further highlights the necessity for policymakers using the 2030 Agenda as a framework to negotiate between the priorities of EU citizens and the priorities of sustainable development. Therein, EU citizens’ priorities should not be taken as a given – history shows that they are susceptible to change if presented with conscientious arguments that respect their needs and ask them to compromise on their wants. Finally, any programme for sustainable development should be closely linked with a programme for federalization, which raises European governance to a sufficiently high degree in order to enable it to address sustainability challenges that cannot be addressed under the current intergovernmental framework. The ultimate result should be the creation of a comprehensive and consensual agenda for the creation of a sustainable and federal Europe by 2030. To many people, the objectives of such an agenda will appear optimistic, possibly even utopian. Yet, I remain convinced that Europe is truly a developing country in the best meaning of the word and that – in the face of necessity – it will find the strength to grow, the will to unite, and to ultimately overcome its present limitations.

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