The European Union Voluntary Review: Successes and shortcomings of the first VIER

July 13, 2023
Javier Surasky
Director of Research

In 2023, halfway through the deadline to achieve the goals set out in the 2030 Agenda, we will witness the first presentation of a voluntary report by an international entity (VIER): the European Union (EU). This is relevant considering that the 2030 Agenda established a tracking and review framework to encompass the global, national, regional, and global levels, and identified Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) as the basis for the tracking mechanism.

In 2018, for example, some local governments had already decided to present a report to the international community that included their own efforts to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the territorial level, which was not foreseen in the 2030 Agenda. This gave rise to Voluntary Local Reviews (VLRs).

The importance of the VIER—which, beyond being innovative, expresses the work carried out in the 27 countries, with a total population of over 447 million people—motivated Cepei to conduct an analysis to identify novelties, examples of continuity, and shortcomings in this new reporting procedure

A report overview

The EU considers sustainable development to be a combination of “economic growth, a highly competitive social market economy that leaves no one behind, respect for human rights, and a high level of environmental protection” (p.7). This way, competitiveness and respect for human rights gain a leading role not found in traditional approaches to sustainable development.

The VIER shows the dual perspective of the responsibilities assumed by the EU: 

  • Internal: EU actions and policies are analyzed within EU countries. A series of European policies are key in this regard, including the “European Semester” (a framework for the integrated surveillance and coordination of economic and employment policies throughout the EU) and the “Multiannual Financial Framework and NextGenerationEU” (post-pandemic recovery plan with pledged funds of more than €800 billion).
  • External: EU support for progress made on the 2030 Agenda in other countries, where the focus remains on European cooperation policies and the so-called “EU commitment at a global level.”

This dual perspective is also expressed in an alignment between the European Commission’s 2019-2024 work strategy and the SDGs.

The European Commission’s prioritized policies for 2019-2024 and how they relate to the SDGs

Source: VIER European Union 2023

In addition, the promotion of equity, climate care and restoration, gender equality, and the consideration of COVID’s impacts are highlighted as cross-cutting elements.

Among the lessons learned in its work towards achieving the 2030 Agenda, the EU highlights the need for strong institutions, evidence-based legislation processes, sustainable development policy coherence, better use of the community budget, and better communication with the public. This should be done while maintaining the EU’s global commitment to the SDGs.

The analysis of European action for each of the SDGs constitutes the largest part of the report. The first 16 SDGs are presented under a single structure that divides information on the EU’s internal and external actions. SDG 17 on partnerships follows a different structure to address the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on financing sustainable development.

The report is completed by a series of appendices presenting statistical information, the participation of young people in achieving the 2030 Agenda, and a summary report on stakeholder consultations.

What’s the same, what’s missing, and what’s new

The Voluntary International Entity Review presented by the EU introduces a welcome change in the tracking and review framework for the 2030 Agenda and provides innovative elements, such as making the process transparent with the contributions made by the different stakeholders in the VIER preparation process.

However, we see that the shortcomings already identified in the national reviews also appear in the VIER. Similar to the Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs), the report claims to follow the UN Secretary-General’s VNR guidelines, but does so only partially, which affects the possibility of comparing subsequent reports. Similarly, the presentation of the future steps for SDG implementation is limited to outlining the general direction in which the EU is headed, but not specific actions to be carried out.

Finally, this VIER has some gaps. Despite repeatedly mentioning the importance of the Leave No One Behind principle, there is no clear identification of the most vulnerable groups that should be prioritized. In terms of data, the presentation of the statistical appendix does not facilitate understanding for people who have no training in the matter, meaning that the general public will not be able to take advantage of the information provided.

Beyond its contents, the first VIER opens a new window of opportunity to improve the reporting framework for the 2030 Agenda. When this happened with the Voluntary Local Reviews, the local government authorities were able to create robust and relevant reports. It is now time for other international entities to continue with this trend, preparing VIERs as transparency and accountability tools.

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