The European Commission Reflection Paper towards a sustainable Europe by 2030 Breakthrough or Business as usual?

Tuesday, February 19, 2019 - 09:28

On 31 January 2019, the European Commission presented its Reflection Paper about how to put Europe on a sustainable pathway by 2030. What does that mean? Operating a transition towards an economic model and ways of living that don’t compromise the ability of future generations and people living in the Global South to meet their needs. That transition will have a financial and social cost, it therefore needs to be just and fair, i.e. the wealthy need to contribute their fair share. This is in fact what our governments and the EU committed to do by adopting the Agenda 2030 and the sustainable development goals, in 2015. This paper seeks to identify ways for the EU to implement those commitments.

The Reflection Paper takes stock of what this Commission has achieved so far to start operating this transition and identifies additional steps for the upcoming Commission, which will be formed after May’s European elections. Many of the Reflection Paper’s elements correspond to work that we undertake in ActionAid in our advocacy for an EU that contributes to human rights and sustainable development in the Global South.

The Reflection paper recognises that much more needs to be done, and it emanates a sense of urgency – which is a good thing. It stresses the importance of building a social Europe, strengthening workers’ organisations and ensuring progressive taxation to fight inequalities; it also calls for much bolder action to become a circular economy and reduce Europe’s footprint on natural resources from other regions in the world; it recognises the importance of ensuring our policies don’t have negative impacts on people living in poverty in the global south, the need to address power imbalances in our food chain (i.e. the dominance of few large corporations) and to ensure our food production system respects the environment. 

However… Altogether, the Reflection Paper remains locked into the paradigms of the past: A disarming belief in GDP growth - which everybody knows is inadequate to measure progress since it doesn’t account for social and environmental harm. This goes together with a firm credo that trade liberalisation is a good thing per se – without any reference to the need to put an end to the calamitous impacts of insufficiently regulated trade and investment liberalisation on local economies in Europe and in partner countries – in particular on women paid and unpaid workers.

When it comes to taxation, we welcome the paper’s calls for a strengthened fight against corporate tax avoidance and for tax systems that are more progressive, that is where everyone pays a fair share. When referring to environmental taxes, the paper recognizes the risk of regressivity of such taxes and stresses the need for them to be progressive – or balanced out by other progressive taxes – which is extremely welcome.

In the paper, it is also claimed that the EU is leading a comprehensive shift of the financial system to a sustainable path, through actions such as clarifying the duties of institutional investors and asset managers to take sustainability into account in their investment decisions. However, we know from the negotiations that are taking place behind closed doors between the Council, the Commission and the Parliament that this new legislation will probably only encompass sustainability with relation to financial risks – completely leaving aside potential impacts that investments can have on human rights and the environment, so long as they are not expected to have financial implications.

Even on food and farming, shifting to a more sustainable consumption of animal-based products it mentioned, but there is no reference to support agroecological practices and localised food systems – the latter being directly hampered by the European Commission relentless trade liberalisation agenda.

That being said, it is on responsible business conduct that the paper disappoints the most. While the fact that there is a section on this topic is a recognition that there can be no greener and fairer world as long as companies don’t behave, the Paper falls short of any reference to the need to regulate their operations and hold them accountable for human rights abuses and environmental damage.

While the Commission stresses that “business practices, consumption and production patterns by EU businesses and consumers should not contribute indirectly to human rights violations or environmental degradation elsewhere in the world”, the actions for next steps on this are an unsatisfactory repeat of the current failed approach focusing on voluntary business measures and incentives. This is despite staggering evidence that decades of voluntary initiatives in this area have just not been enough to guarantee business respect for human rights, particularly with respect to overseas activities, nor to ensure that affected communities have access to justice.

What we urgently need are mandatory rules, in the form of legislation that would require European businesses to conduct human rights due diligence throughout their operations and supply chains. In addition, if the EU genuinely wants to deliver on its commitments to an international level playing field, as the paper claims it does, our governments need to engage at the UN level, where there are already ongoing negotiations for a Binding Treaty on business and human rights – yet the EU and most EU governments are not engaging in the process at all. That Treaty has been asked for in particular by movements and affected communities in the Global South. A major campaign launched in late January calls for an end to their silence, and has already gathered over 400,000 signatures from citizens all over Europe in three weeks!

Will the next Commission listen and deliver? And will member states support the deep shift we urgently need?