The conference “The SDGs and the Future of Europe”, organized by the European Network for Political Foundations (ENoP) and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) took place in Bonn, Germany on 15 October 2018. More than 130 participants from over 20 European countries attended the conference and public dialogue in the evening following the event, hosted by SDSN Germany and Deutsche Welle.

The conference was moderated by Patrick Leusch, Head of European Affairs, Deutsche Welle. Guido Schmidt-Traub (Executive Director, SDSN) and Johanna Lutz (Coordinator, ENoP) welcomed the participants, pointing out the lack of leadership in Europe regarding SDG implementation and highlighting 2019 as a critical period for Europe in view of the upcoming European Parliament elections. In this context they emphasized the potential of the recently initiated cooperation between ENoP and SDSN in pushing forward SDG implementation in Europe.

The first session “The EU at the crossroads: Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals in challenging times – defending sustainability against populism” started with a keynote by Johan Rockström (Director, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and member of the SDSN Leadership Council). He criticized the current political “cherry picking” regarding the 17 SDGs, preventing a full and coherent implementation of the 2030 Agenda. Mr. Rockström called for Germany and Europe to start playing a more active role in SDG implementation.

In the panel discussion that followed, Gesine Schwan (President, Humboldt-Viadrina Governance Platform), Matern von Marschall (Member of the German Bundestag) and Timotej Šooš (National Coordinator for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Republic of Slovenia) entered into more detail regarding Europe’s leadership on the SDGs. Although the responsibility for SDG implementation is a responsibility of national governments in Europe, until now, many have been hesitant to take bold action for fear of losing voters for pushing forward global instead of local issues. The discussants also pointed to the lack of awareness of the electorate as well as of politicians regarding the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs. Existing top-down structures in the SDG implementation should be balanced with increased bottom-up structures, as for example partnerships between cities and across continents to enforce SDG implementation.

The second half of the day themed “Making the SDGs Europe’s Business”, consisted of a number of breakout groups discussing; 1) budgeting for the SDGs and the role of the next EU Multiannual Financial Framework 2) political parties and the elections of the European Parliament in 2019 3) the need for dialogue with civil societies and business actors 4) EU presidencies and the diversity of member states and 5) the potential of a European leadership in SDG implementation with a focus on European international relations.

The conference was followed by a public evening event with a keynote by Gesine Schwan who pointed out the lack of solidarity in Europe, the critical role of community empowerment and the controversial debate regarding SDG implementation in Europe. Timotej Šooš, Barbara Caracciolo (Solidar, SDG Watch Europe), Dirk Messner (UNU EHS and Co-Chair, SDSN Germany) and Jan Pettersson (Gothenburg Centre for Sustainable Development and Co-Chair, SDSN Northern Europe) joined the panel discussion. The speakers touched on several aspects of European politics including the threat of rising populism in Europe which threatens the steady progress needed to implement Agenda 2030. According to them, too often, the SDGs have been perceived as an elite project, preventing their effective implementation by all parties of society. To combat populism and to increase the engagement of the local population, the SDGs need to be positioned as a people-led and supported agenda that stands for attractive futures and offer solutions for current challenges in our societies. The discussants pointed out that engagement on the local level is essential for this crucial step.