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Sustainable development - EU

The EU first formulated its sustainable development strategy during the 2001 Gothenburg European Council. Although sustainable development is enshrined in the EU Treaty, its implementation remains a problem. In February 2005, the Commission took stock and confirmed that a number of unsustainable trends continue to worsen. One controversial issue is the relationship with the Lisbon reform agenda for growth and jobs. The June 2006 European Council adopted a revised strategy.

Sustainable development was defined by the Brundtland report  in 1987 as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".  It is development based on consumption and production patterns that do not degrade natural resources, that protect the environment, promote equitable sharing of well-being to all and alleviate poverty.

Sustainable development has been a fundamental objective of the European Union since 1997. It was enshrined as article 2 of the Treaty. It is supposed to underpin all EU policies and actions as an over-arching principle.

As a complement to the broad EU strategy for socio-economic reforms, defined at the Lisbon European Council in 2000 (the "Lisbon agenda"), the EU adopted an equally ambitious Strategy for Sustainable Development (SDS) at the Gothenburg Summit one year later and added an external dimension to the strategy in Barcelona in 2002.

In 2005, the Commission started a review of the Sustainable Development Strategy: 

  • In February 2005, it published an initial and critical assessment of progress made since 2001 and outlined a number of future orientations for the review. This stocktaking exercise highlighted several unsustainable trends that have worsened since 2001 (climate change, threats to public health, increasing poverty and social exclusion, depletion of natural resources and loss of biodiversity).
  • In June 2005, EU heads of state and government adopted a declaration on "guiding principles for sustainable development", which states explicitly that the "renewed Lisbon agenda is an essential component of the over-arching objective of sustainable development".
  • The Commission presented its proposal for the review "A Platform for Action" on 13 December 2005 after consultations with several institutions and stakeholders. The communication puts a stronger focus on six priorities  (climate change, health, social exclusion, sustainable transport, natural resources and global poverty) and identifies key actions to be undertaken on these issues. It also presents ideas for more effective monitoring and follow-up such as a progress report to be issued by the Commission every two years.


The EU's sustainable development strategy faces several challenges. Some of these challenges are very similar to the problems encountered by the other big strategy of the Union, the Lisbon agenda.

Clarification of SDS relationship with the reforms agenda for growth and jobs

Although the EU has explicitly stated that sustainable development is the over-arching principle of all EU policies, in reality, the issue of Europe's economic competitiveness in the face of globalisation has come to dominate the political agenda. The refocused Lisbon strategy for growth and jobs has become the main objective of the Barroso Commission.

The three pillars of the Lisbon strategy (economic competitiveness, social inclusion and environmental protection) have been compared to "three children", one of which -competitiveness - needs more attention. In this process, the sustainable development strategy is sometimes even reduced to the environmental pillar of the Lisbon strategy.

Several commissioners have on different occasions made statements along the same lines, stating that what is needed is "economic growth first" before the EU can act to protect the environment or implement social protection policies. The fact that the EU has a "competitiveness council" but no "sustainable development council" and no member state has an SD minister proves that sustainable development is not yet a real political concern or that political leaders lack the understanding for the necessary paradigm change of economic and social development.

The fact that the Commission's own December Communication does not see the EU's competitiveness challenge as a seventh key focus demonstrates its own lack of understanding for the interlinking between the EU's two major strategies.

Lack of focus, effective monitoring and targets

Because sustainable development is such a broad concept, sometimes too many different issues are being put under the umbrella of the SDS, therefore taking attention away from the most unsustainable trends. There is also a general lack of good indicators and future targets.


There is a lack of clarity about the relationship between the EU SDS and national sustainable development strategies. There is no mandatory goal for member states to have a sustainable development strategy, but for those who have a good strategy (with an effective and independent sustainable development council such as in the UK or Germany), it is not too clear how it relates to that of the EU.


As sustainable development is a very horizontal, cross-sectoral issue, there is a question as to which council formation and which Commission Directorate-General should be in charge. Also, is there a need for mandatory national sustainable development plans, just as there are national Lisbon Reform Programmes?


Commission: After the mid-term review of the Lisbon strategy, which saw the Commission seeking to refocus the EU and its member states on economic growth and job creation, critics said that sustainable development was being given a second rank status. However, in his presentation of the review of the Gothenburg strategy one week later, President Barroso made a point of underlining the importance of the sustainability dimension. "The Sustainable Development Strategy and the Lisbon Strategy are mutually reinforcing," said Mr. Barroso.

What emerged from the Lisbon mid-term review is that every new piece of environmental legislation will be double-checked by the Commission to ensure that it does not impose unnecessary burdens on businesses, growth and job creation. Incentives and voluntary initiatives by businesses are therefore likely to be increasingly the key to the success of the achievement of the EU's sustainable development strategy, with less emphasis on legislation.

Business: UNICE has stated that it is committed to progress towards sustainable development. However, it feels that the emphasis in the European debate on sustainable development is on the social and environmental aspects at the expense of the economic. This imbalance needs to be addressed. Issues such as energy efficiency and the harnessing of technological progress and economic growth are important in reaching this goal. There is also a need for the consumer to share some of the burden. UNICE sees this as requiring a new way of policy-making that has "agreed objectives, a coherent approach, efficient and effective measures and multi-stakeholder dialogue."

NGOs: NGOs emphasise that the issue of sustainable development needs to be debated in a global context, not just a European one. One group of NGOs consisting of the EEB, Friends of the Earth and International Friends of Nature has called for the 'greening of the economy' to be a priority. In practical terms, this would include "the abolition of environmentally perverse subsidies and promotion of sound subsidies, greening procurement policies, application of environmental liability and producers responsibility, and tax incentives for environmental protection."