Although the European Union may appear to be squaring the circle of creating prosperity while preserving the planet, the reality exposed by a new report is that many of the environmental and social costs are being externalised to poorer countries.

Who is paying the bill: (Negative) impacts of EU policies and practices in the world’ highlights the detrimental consequences of European practices in more than a dozen policy areas, including agriculture, fisheries, trade, taxation and finance, chemical pollution, waste, resource extraction, land dispossession, and the arms trade.

The European launch of the report took place in Brussels on 11 September 2019.

“Political leaders in the EU like to portray the region as the global leader in sustainability. Such statements are pretentious,” asserts Patrizia Heidegger, director of global policies and sustainability at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), and author of the chapter on the exporting of EU waste to developing countries. “While we may have sustainable solutions in place in some areas, as Europeans we still have one of the largest environmental footprints on the planet. The EU is the most import-dependent region of the world: our system is fed on resources, commodities and raw materials extracted and produced in third countries.”

With the support of the EEB and the involvement of half a dozen civil society organisations, this SDG Watch Europe report emphasises that this unsustainable situation cannot be allowed to continue. “The economy of the future needs to take into account the environmental and social impact beyond our borders rather than living in the illusion of a low-carbon, resource-efficient Europe that exports resource-intensive production to other parts of the world,” the report stresses.

Sowing the seeds of destruction

Although farming has a rustic, close to nature image, the reality of modern agribusinesses is very different. “Industrial agriculture is the world’s leading driver of ecosystem degradation,” the report observes. “Unhealthy and unsustainably produced food poses a global risk to people and the planet, not to speak of hunger which remains an ongoing injustice despite the expansion of EU food production and EU agro-food exports.”

This is a real problem in a world with overstretched arable land, shrinking forests and a growing population. “If Europe wants to be more supportive of sustainable development and global food security, it has to reduce its external land use, strive to improve crop rotation, and close the nutrient-cycles in its farming systems, rather than expand exports,” maintains the report.

Of course, agriculture is not the only culprit. Despite efforts to make it more sustainable, EU fisheries policy is emptying seas and oceans across the globe, and undermining the livelihoods of small-scale fishing operators in the global South.

Asymmetric tradefare

Although the European Union likes to believe that its trade policies have a benign impact on the outside world, the disparity in negotiating power between the EU and developing countries means that trade carries many hidden costs for poorer parts of the world.

“The current way of accounting hides a massive transfer of environmental damage out of Europe, which falls off the radar,” the report observes. This damage includes the importing of primary resources into Europe and the exporting of European waste to countries ill-equipped to deal with it.

“The EU’s circular economy approach is often hailed as world-leading. While the policies may be progressive, the reality on the ground is different,” points out the EEB’s Patrizia Heidegger. “We keep on producing more and more waste per capita in Europe. And we cannot handle our waste.”

Exporting poverty

Europe’s financial and taxation policies and practices are also causing devastation in many parts of the world. “The euro crisis was one of the key constraints on progressive transformation towards sustainable development in the EU. The EU’s approach to solving the crisis turned formal internal problems into external problems, known as ‘beggar thy neighbour’ policy,” recounts the report. “The EU is currently building a new house of cards out of unsustainable debts, but this time outside of Europe.”

The EU’s trade, investment and related policies do not just hurt the environment and fragile ecosystems, they also fuel human and labour rights violations, not to mention widescale land-grabbing and expropriation. “Too often, the tensions between the EU’s trade and investment policy and human rights obligations are glossed over,” notes the report. “Despite voluntary human rights initiatives in various economic sectors, the pace of human rights abuses committed by companies has not slowed.”

SDGs are the solution

Redressing these imbalances, within the EU and between Europe and the world, requires the European Union (and its member states) to commit wholeheartedly to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to achieve them, making them the cornerstones of all its policies.

“If taken seriously [the 2030 Agenda] has the potential to change the prevailing development paradigm by re-emphasising the multidimensional and interrelated nature of sustainable development and its universal applicability,” the report asserts, while noting that “the EU is still lacking a comprehensive strategy on the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and its ambitious commitments to action.” This absence of a coherent and cohesive policy is the reason why influential segments of European civil society have repeatedly called for the SDGs to become the “golden thread running through all EU policies”.

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