Overline: Interview with EU expert
Headline: “The SDGs have become ‘Chefsache’ in many European countries”

The European Union (EU) is currently finding its bearings after the recent elections, and the jostling for top positions is in full swing. Regardless of the outcome, sustainability is likely to play a stronger role in future EU policy. Now for the first time, the EU will report to the UN High-Level Political Forum on progress in implementing the SDGs. Senior Fellow Ingeborg Niestroy has closely monitored the EU’s sustainability policy over the last twenty years and just presented the IASS Science Platform Sustainability 2030 at this 'HLPF'. In the following interview, she talks about a study she led on the sustainability strategies of the EU member states.

EU expert Ingeborg Niestroy IASS-Senior Fellow
Ingeborg Niestroy is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) and has been involved in the development and implementation of sustainability policy in the EU for twenty years. IASS/ S. Letz

IASS: You compared the governance approaches of the 28 EU member states with regard to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). What does your analysis show about how seriously these countries take the issue of sustainability?

Ingeborg Niestroy: The SDGs have certainly boosted the efforts of all EU member states in this regard – sustainability is now ‘Chefsache’ in many of these countries. The SDGs are universal – they apply to all countries – but the pathways to implementing them will differ significantly depending on the particular circumstances of each country. Most countries have taken steps to improve coordination between government departments, the regional and local levels and to support the participation of civil society groups. In most cases, new bodies, processes and supporting instruments have been introduced, including mechanisms to integrate science-based policy advice, for example on impact assessments for specific policies.

IASS: Are there any toprunner countries in this regard?

I.N.: I don’t think it would be appropriate to talk about toprunner countries. What is true is that almost all EU member states have submitted a Voluntary National Report to the UN High-Level Political Forum, thereby signalling their genuine commitment to sustainability. Twenty-four countries have done so to date, with two to follow this year (Croatia and the UK), leaving only two countries (Bulgaria and Austria) that have not yet submitted a report. I should point out that these reports are largely not paper tigers, but describe concrete measures and action. In some countries, including Finland, Germany, and similarly Latvia and the Czech Republic, longstanding efforts to foster governance for sustainable development are finally paying off. Here, many governance measures have been introduced, tested, revised and improved, and good practice been kept.

In other countries with a longer history of sustainability governance, such as Portugal, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, the momentum fuelled by the SDGs has less taken off. The Netherlands are counting on the self-organisation of the private sector and civil society with respect to SDG implementation. In this spirit, also in Italy a broad sustainability alliance has emerged “from below”. For other countries, like Spain, the SDGs have come at just the right time to encourage a shift in policy and governance. Ireland is another late starter, but caught fire to catch up.

IASS: What role do the parliaments play in the SDGs?

I.N.: Aside from their legislative function, parliaments also act as government watchdogs. However, in the case of cross-cutting issues, such as sustainability, parliaments have a hard time keeping taps on the governments’ performance. They are also organised into portfolios, but lack a body or level for overall coordination. The parliamentary groups are here the cross-cutting element, but, on the whole, it is even more difficult for parliaments than for governments to overcome the silo mentality and way of working. However, now for the first time, the SDGs have prompted tangible change in the parliaments. In some cases, responsibility for the SDGs has been allocated to existing bodies, for example the “Committee for the Future” in Finland. While the government there is obliged to report on activities demanded by this Committee, Germany’s Parliamentary Advisory Council on Sustainable Development could do a lot more to intensify its activities and their impacts.

In other countries, new bodies have been established, for example the 2030 Agenda Network in the Danish Parliament, a transition initiative in the French National Assembly, and (advisory) committees in the parliaments of Latvia and Romania.

IASS: What’s happening at EU level?

I.N.:  In the European Parliament, the Committees on Environment and Development have prepared a total of three resolutions on the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. The institutional response so far has been that these two committees co-lead the work on the 2030 Agenda. Every year they prepare a report and send a joint delegation to the UN High-Level Political Forum. The new Parliament now may reaffirme, expand or revise this is arrangement.

IASS: 2019 is probably a decisive year for sustainable development at EU level. What, in your view, needs to be improved?

I.N.: The main message of our study is that cooperation between the EU and the member states has to intensify. It is an unused potential for the required acceleration in shifting to a sustainable development. No matter where you look, cooperation is lacking in all institutions and organisations, and the parliaments also have a lot of catching up to do here.

Useful instruments are being put to good use, like the European Commission’s "Peer 2 Peer" tool that stimulates mutual learning for a more effective implementation of EU environmental legislation. At EU level, the implementation of the SDGs should become the guiding framework of the next Commission. The new Strategic Agenda agreed by the European Council on 20 June includes some key element to be built on.

IASS: What myth about the EU would you like to dispel once and for all?

I.N.:  The myth that EU decisions are taken by “the bureaucrats in Brussels”. That’s just wrong. The Commission makes proposals and decisions are then taken by the Council, the collective body of the EU member states, usually together with the European Parliament. These are typically prepared by informal, tripartite meetings (trilogues) between the European Council, Parliament and Commission.

Ingeborg Niestroy, Elisabeth Hege, Elizabeth Dirth, Ruben Zondervan: Europe's approach to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals: good practices and the way forward, European Union 2019. doi:10.2861/28364