Accelerating change on the wrong path is a recipe for disaster. So, will transformation and true sustainability at last be part of the European vision?

Tanya Cox, 
Director at CONCORD Europe

As civil society gears up to welcome the new European leaders, now that all the top appointments have been made and confirmed, we are wondering whether – at last – they will take the future of mankind and of our planet sufficiently seriously to take a longer term perspective. Will they – at last – put sustainable development at the front and centre of their respective strategies and work programmes?

The European Commission, in its last months under the current President, suddenly seemed to veer towards the idea that this was indeed important. So much so that the EU Reflection Paper on creating a Sustainable Europe proposed that Europe should be a “global trail blazer in sustainable development”. If the EU’s presence and key messages at the recent High Level Political Forum in New York are anything to go by, progress is mainly focused on the environmental sphere. That means that becoming a “global trail blazer” is going to take quite some changes in approach, extending the EU’s efforts to all its internal policies and those key external policies – like trade – which impact on partner countries’ efforts to achieve sustainable development.

So will the President-elect, Ursula von der Leyen take the bull by the horns? I think we have some grounds for hope if we judge by her recent speeches and the political guidelines released this month. We have been promised a new European Green Deal and a refocused European Semester and assured that principle of “leaving nobody behind” is “the European way”. That is certainly good news, since inequalities – especially regarding wealth and the opportunities and access that go with it – have reached unprecedented levels across the world.

However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say. So, will Ms. Von der Leyen ensure that the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is mainstreamed through the mission letters that all her Commissioners will receive? And will she put in place and enforce the necessary coordination mechanisms to finally realise policy coherence for sustainable development?

Much has been said of late – including by CONCORD – of the need for urgency in implementing the 2030 Agenda. And this is being translated as the ‘need to speed up change’. However, one message from the recent High Level Political Forum particularly struck me: accelerating change while on the wrong path is a recipe for disaster. And CONCORD certainly has a number of concerns about the current economic path of the EU – and the world more generally. So it was music to my ears to hear Ms. Von der Leyen say that “[i]t’s not people that serve the economy. It’s the economy that serves our people.” Is there hope that transformational change – not just more change along the same path – is conceivable under her leadership? Will the well-being of people and the planet at last come first?

But it is not just the European Commission that needs to take this seriously, important though the Commission is. The European Parliament – now under the leadership of David Sassoli – must push and support the Commission to do the right thing where sustainable development is concerned. Including seeing it beyond the lens of development cooperation and the environment. Similarly, the Council – now under the stewardship of Charles Michel – must ensure that both national and European policies and interests are harmonised, coherent and truly sustainable.

Given the geopolitical pressures, global population dynamics, climate and environmental challenges, soaring inequalities and injustices affecting stability worldwide, Europe must indeed be a “responsible world leader”.

Tanya Cox

CONCORD Director

Lastly, ‘the world’ and ‘a strong Europe in the world’ must no longer be afterthoughts. Given the geopolitical pressures, global population dynamics, climate and environmental challenges, soaring inequalities and injustices affecting stability worldwide, Europe must indeed be a “responsible world leader”. We, civil society, are relying on the new European leaders to embrace transformational change, to create equal and fair partnerships to see that change through and to ensure that we leave no one behind. And we will work with them to that end.