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A European Semester for the Sustainable Development Goals?


In the first blog of this series, we highlighted the actual and potential roles that regional organizations can play in the implementation of the UN SDGs as a global experimentalist and goal-setting governance model. Taking the EU and ASEAN as case studies, we showed that these regional organizations differ in how they engage with the SDGs due to differences in local contexts and institutional design. But overall, their role is underdeveloped and could be strengthened. In this blog, we focus on the EU. We explore shortcomings in the current EU’s involvement with the SDGs and make a recommendation for the EU to reinforce its role in this global agenda.

In our report, we identify several shortcomings in the four roles (translating, supporting, coordinating, monitoring) that the EU can play in the implementation of the SDGs. First, with regard to the translating role, we highlight that there is no unified EU strategy or vision towards the SDGs and that the EU has not reframed its policies and instruments in SDG terms, even in areas of EU exclusive competences. This is partially a result of the complex institutional design of the EU in which the Commission, Council and European Parliament hold different positions vis-à-vis the SDG agenda, the two latter being often more ambitious than the former.

Second, in its supporting role, or how the EU effectively implements the SDGs, significant progress still needs to be made. The EU had developed a Multi-Stakeholder Platform on the SDGs to help on their implementation, but this platform does not exist anymore. The Commission has also mandated its Commissioners to mainstream the SDGs in their work, but how effectively this will happen remains to be seen. There have also been repeated calls to integrate the SDGs into the EU Multi-Annual Financial Framework, but these calls have remained unanswered and the implementation of the SDGs in the EU remains only partly and indirectly financed by different EU financial instruments.

Third, on the coordinating role, we distinguish between horizontal coordination (at EU level) and vertical coordination (between EU and EU Member States (MS)). For the former, several EU mechanisms exist to coordinate on issue areas related to the SDGs or to sustainable development more generally, including through the coordinating role of the Commission’s First Vice President, the Sustainable Development Project Team, the Inter Service Group on the SDGs, and the Council’s Working Party on the 2030 Agenda. With regard to vertical coordination, the SDGs have recently been integrated in the European Semester – an annual review mechanism to coordinate EU economic, fiscal and social policies – under the impulse of the von der Leyen Commission. Yet, this has been done in a rather unsatisfactory manner as it only involves superficial references to the SDGs in Country Reports. It should therefore be further developed. We return to this in our recommendation.

Lastly, on the monitoring role, the EU shows stronger involvement especially as it has mandated the Eurostat to monitor progress on the SDGs in the EU through indicators that are specific to the EU. Yet, EU MS are still playing a dominating role in monitoring the SDGs through their national statistical agencies which report national progress to the Eurostat, and through their Voluntary National Reviews at the UN High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. Ideally, the monitoring will also be linked more explicitly to benchmarking exercises which might create learning effects between EU MS.

Overall, we argue that the EU should strengthen its role in the implementation of the SDGs. More specifically, the EU should expand the existing European Semester into a governance mechanism for the SDGs in the EU. Indeed, the European Semester can be conceived as a form of experimentalist and goal-setting governance model, just like the SDGs, as it annually sets broad goals for economic, fiscal and social policy in the EU as well as for individual EU MS. Just as the European Semester has been “socialized” in 2011, it should also be “greened” by including the currently missing environmental dimension and fully integrating the SDGs. This could strengthen the role(s) that the EU can play in governance for the SDGs.

Firstly, it can help the EU fulfil the translating role by providing a clear strategy and guidelines on the SDGs through the Annual Growth Strategy. Secondly, in redefining common guidelines and coherent Country Specific Recommendations (CSRs), the European Semester can also leverage implementation means for the SDGs (supporting role) by making recommendations on budget allocation explicitly targeting progress towards the SDGs. Financial sanctions associated with recurrent non-compliance in the current European Semester framework can also contribute to more effective implementation of the SDGs if CSRs are oriented towards their achievement. Thirdly, the coordinating role of the EU could be reinforced, both in horizontal coordination with the inclusion of the SDGs into the European Semester, and in vertical coordination between EU MS and the EU as they would have an annual procedure to exchange and align policies. Lastly, the European Semester can help fulfil the monitoring role through the Alert Mechanism Report at EU level, and through the Country Reports and in-depth reviews at EU MS level.

Reinforcing the existing European Semester mechanism by integrating the SDGs would offer great potential for the EU to strengthen its role in the implementation of the SDGs. Yet, including the SDGs in the European Semester needs to go hand in hand with governance structure adaptations, as occurred in its socialization in 2011, in order for the SDGs not to be envisioned solely through the prism of economic or socioeconomic policy or for environmental concerns not to be subordinated to economic or social concerns. The EU therefore needs to be particularly careful about how environmental actors are involved in the European Semester processes so as to balance the three pillars of sustainability underpinning the SDGs.

A stronger role of the EU in the SDGs through a reinforced European Semester could foster learning effects between EU MS but also spill-over effects on other regional organizations in the implementation of the SDGs abroad.

Authors: Charline Depoorter (KUL), Michiel Hoornick (KUL), Axel Marx (KUL), Tirta Nugraha Mursitama (BINUS), Kari Otteburn (KUL), Sukmawani Bela Pertiwi (BINUS), Lili Yulyadi (BINUS)

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