Unclear route map for EU SDG journey

Kirsty Blackstock, Alba Juarez-Bourke, Kerry Waylen and Keith Matthews

In a previous issue of the Nexus Times, we asked where was the nexus governed? (Issue V) drawing attention to the distribution of the actors involved in trying to govern the water-energy-food nexus across European Union (EU) institutions. Our conclusion was the space(s) for governing the nexus are ‘everywhere and nowhere’. This seems also to be the case with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Let us elaborate. The signatories to the UN2030 agenda are over 170 nation-states, and the EU is also a signatory. This means the SDGs are objects of shared competence between the EU and its Member States. Member States can, and do, track their own progress on delivery and submit voluntary national reviews to support the UN’s assessment of progress e.g. Greece in 2018, United Kingdom in 2019.

The EU is not a monolith but consists of several institutions including the tripartite governance structure of the Council of the European Union, the European Parliament and the European Commission. Their shared commitment to the SDGs was formalised in “Our World, Our Dignity, Our Future” (2017) although each institution has its own role in governing the SDGs.  The Council has a working party on Agenda 2030 to oversee delivery shared between the EU and Member States.  Various European Parliament committees and associated commissions (e.g. Committee of Regions) have debated delivery of the SDGS. The Commission set up a Multi-Stakeholder Platform on SDGs to support and advise them and all stakeholders involved on the implementation of the SDGs at the EU level.  Within the Commission, the cabinet for the Vice President has responsibility for sustainable development, and the Secretariat General helps to coordinate delivery. An interservice group was convened to develop a Reflection Paper “Towards a sustainable Europe by 2030.” The supporting agency, Eurostat, has repurposed its sustainable development indicators to help track delivery of the SDGs; whilst all policy development processes must consider the SDGs as part of their impact assessment processes.  

Our analysis of the narratives regarding the EU’s role in delivering the SDGs is as follows. In the reflection paper, the EU is presented as a front runner in sustainable development, and hence “exceptionally well-positioned to lead” (European Commission, 2019). Whilst the adoption of the SDGs has highlighted the need for everyone everywhere to contribute to the goals, the focus is still primarily on the ‘external dimension’ such as development aid and trade (European Parliament, 2019).  Finally, the way to deliver the SDGs is presented as ensuring policy coherence between existing EU policies and actions, rather than taking new approaches to address complex and intertwined problems (e.g. economic and social exclusion, state fragility and environmental degradation, all of which are also exacerbated by climate change).  This suggests that the SDGs can best be addressed by incremental refocussing of an existing approach to sustainable development.

However, the Commission has been criticised  for failure to have a clear and coherent strategy about how the SDGs will be delivered (European Economic and Social Committee, 2018, European Parliament, 2019); and a suggestion that the EU will not achieve the goals by 2030 (SDSN and IEEP, 2019).  This is unsurprising given that the previous sustainability goals in the EU Sustainable Development Strategy also remained elusive (CEU, 2009). At the time of writing, there is no visible SDG implementation strategy beyond a list of existing EU policies and actions brigaded under each SDG. We await the imminent adoption of the Green Deal and hope that here it will include a meaningful implementation plan with associated clear lines of accountability to ensure that the SDGs are governed in specific EU spaces by specific EU actors. This may help to ensure that delivery can start to match the EU’s laudable ambition. If not,delivery will remain fragmented and perpetuate the capability-expectations gap that has dogged the EU since its inception.



Council of the European Union (2009), Presidency's report on the 2009 review of the Union's Sustainable Development Strategy.

European Commission, Council of the European Union & European Parliament (2017), The new European consensus on development "Our world, our dignity, our future". Joint statement by the Council and the representatives of the governments of the Member States meeting within the Council, the European Parliament and the European Commission.

European Economic and Social Committee (2018). Indicators better suited to evaluate the SDGs - the civil society contribution (own-initiative opinion). NAT/737-EESC-2018-01470​.

European Parliament (2019), Europe's approach to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals: good practices and the way forward.

Sustainable Development Solutions Network & Institute for European Environmental Policy (2019), 2019 Europe Sustainable Development Report.