Sustainability Heroes at the European Parliament

A new campaign is recruiting European parliamentarians to champion the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the corridors of EU power. Several MEPs spoke at the launch.

On Wednesday 19 February, the European Parliament hosted the launch of the MEPs4SDGs campaign, which seeks to encourage European parliamentarians to champion the cause of the Sustainable Development Goals in Brussels.

The SDGs are a holistic set of 17 ambitious targets, expressed in the 2030 Agenda, agreed by the international community in 2015 which seek, among other things, to eradicate poverty, narrow inequalities, tackle global warming, protect nature and ensure that humanity lives within the boundaries of the planet.

Photo: EEB/Sonia Goicoechea

Hosted by German Social Democratic MEP Udo Bullmann, the event brought together parliamentarians with civil society. Among the MEPs in attendance were Barry Andrews of the republican Fianna Fáil in Ireland, Petros Kokkalis of the Coalition of the Radical Left in Greece, Bert-Jan Ruissen of the conservative Reformed Political Party in the Netherlands, Christel Schaldemose of the Social Democrats in Denmark, Juozas Olekas of the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party, Marc Angel of the Luxembourg Socialist Workers’ Party and Marc Tarabella of the Socialist Party in Belgium.

A sustainable species of love

Some of the attendant parliamentarians were longstanding SDG enthusiasts. “I’m very much in love with the SDGs,” confessed Angel, expressing a special affection for SDG5 (gender equality) and SDG16 (peace, justice and strong institutions).

Angel dons an SDG-themed badge on his lapel but, disappointingly for him, many of his fellow parliamentarians do not recognise and some have never heard of the SDGs.

Civil society was represented by a number of organisations, including the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), SDG Watch Europe and the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP).

“For the first time, we have a global strategy for sustainability,” Bullmann told the audience. “The [Ursula] von der Leyen Commission has placed SDGs at the policy forefront.”

Photo: EEB/Sonia Goicoechea

“The new Commission is a major change compared to the previous Commission, which marked an era of austerity, widening inequalities and little concern for the environment,” observed the EEB’s Director for Global Policies and Sustainability Patrizia Heidegger. “SDGs have been put at the forefront. True. But is that just to please civil society or will they guide the formation and implementation of EU policies?”

Sustainability heroes

Despite progress in some areas, Europe, like most of the world, has fallen behind on its implementation of the SDGs, both at home and abroad, and, without the redoubling of efforts, is in danger of missing the 2030 deadline for achieving the SDGs. This is reflected in such areas as the widening inequalities within Europe and in how the EU exports misery to other parts of the world.

Photo: EEB/Sonia Goicoechea

The coming decade is not only crunch time for the climate, as experts have waned, it will also make or break the 2030 Agenda. “We have no time to lose anymore, when it comes to climate action or global inequalities,” Ingo Ritz, director of programmes at GCAP. “As MEPs, you have an important role to play as ambassadors for the SDGs and as sustainability heroes.”

MEPs4SDGs is the second phase of the ‘Sustainability Heroes’ campaign launched by the EEB and its Make Europe Sustainable for All (MESA) partners organised events and actions across the EU.

On behalf of SDG Watch Europe, the EEB sent out a job ad for ‘Sustainability Heroes’ to members of the European Parliament. The EEB also took to filmmaking. In a light-hearted animated film produced on behalf of SDG Watch Europe, a selection panel inspired by the pantheon of ancient gods interview prospective MEPs for the role of Sustainability Heroes.

The elephant in the Green Deal

The EU’s flagship European Green Deal not only seeks to transform Europe into a “climate-neutral continent” but to do so through a just transition that leaves no one behind. The Green Deal covers a broad spectrum of policy areas, such as clean energy, sustainable industry, sustainable mobility, sustainable food systems, biodiversity and eliminating pollution.

The launch of the MEPs4SDGs campaign featured a roundtable debate on how to ensure that the European Green Deal acts as a driver of sustainability and what the European Parliament’s role would be in forging this dynamic.

“There is a risk that the SDGs will be sidelined and bypassed in the rush to implement the Green Deal,” argued Patrizia Heidegger, who explained the new flagship policy was not designed specifically with the SDGs in mind, but these were grafted on later. “Reducing poverty and inequality is absent for the Green Deal. Speaking of a just transition alone is not enough.”

“There is no Green Deal without a red heart,” insisted Marc Angel. “The environment and society have to go hand in hand.”

Udo Bullmann feared that the budget so far earmarked for the European Green Deal was not sufficient to meet the initiative’s ambitions and goals. “Finance is the elephant in the room,” agreed Heidegger.

“It’s unthinkable that we could save the financial system but not the ecosystem,” reflected MEP Petros Kokkalis. “But where there’s a will, there’s a way. It’s up to us to up our game.” Kokkalis proposed replacing the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact, an agreement intended to maintain fiscal discipline within the euro area, with a Climate, Security and Sustainability Pact.

The EU budget is a key battleground in this regard. “It’s important to unite our efforts regarding the [Multiannual Financial Framework]. We should not vote for the MFF if it doesn’t achieve our needs,” said Juozas Olekas.

But it should not stop there. Efforts need to be made to convince national governments to harness their own budgets to serve the objectives of the European Green Deal. “The greatest financial resources are in national capitals. We need to work at both the national and European levels,” noted Bullmann.

One way to ensure that the Green Deal and the EU budgets served the SDGs was to form alliances across party lines, a few of the MEPs noted. “Denmark has a cross-party group for SDGs which has been quite successful,” Christel Schaldemose pointed out. “At the European Parliament, we need cross-party support, otherwise we can’t deliver on the SDGs.”