Europe and the chronicle of an announced failure at Rio+20

How the EU was pummeled by a US-BRICS alliance and why it was long in the making

In the aftermath of the widespread disillusion that is Rio+20, a veritable myriad of pundits have commented at length on this failure of epic proportions. Without exception they have named and blamed the culprits. Of course everyone shares that blame, but in my capacity as Youth Delegate for Belgium, I noticed that the EU in particular missed the opportunity to make a difference. That is why I will explore here how Europe as a collective became entangled in a geopolitical quagmire. Indeed, EU political leadership in the sustainable development agenda effectively grinded to a halt at Rio+20.

Shifting powers

On the international level, Europe has always had a leading role within the scope of sustainable development. Its reliance on soft power has been ambiguous at times, as European countries have certainly not consistently put the money where their mouth is. Nevertheless their pioneer role in sustainable development is undisputed. However, the UN being a consensus based institution, there are limits to what they can achieve. These constraints are framed by the evolving balance of power in time, which in turn is very much determined by economic strength.

This logic was briefly interrupted after the end of the Cold War, when countries were increasingly exposed to globalization and multilateralism flourished. There has been an undeniable increase in participation of various stakeholders for example, and especially so in ECOSOC’s functional Commission for Sustainable Development. With the rise of emerging countries however, their hold on the international political arena is equally strengthening. For instance, China bolstered the IMF with $43 billion of the $430 billion boost agreed at the latest G20 summit in Mexico, knowing very well this meant a bigger slice of the voting pie. That it chooses to invest in the IMF while remaining reticent in other areas, such as at the Rio+20 sustainable development agenda, is a sad but telling sign that oldschool powermongering is still very much alive.

“There’s none so blind as they that won’t see”

Unfortunately many in the EU have a difficult time appreciating this change. At Rio+20, we saw the break-up of the classical North-South divide. The US clearly went to Rio to maintain the status quo at all costs. The Obama administration was not ready to provide extra ammunition to its Republican adversary in an election year. This time around however, US diplomats sided with the emerging economies to hold back on clear and concrete commitments. That this new axis succeeded is clearly reflected in the outcome document. The lowest common denominator achieved historical depths indeed.

While joining forces with the US, the emerging economies as well as the G77 in general skillfully outplayed the Europeans by recalling the promises made by western countries twenty years ago at the previous Rio Summit. The implicit agreement in Agenda 21, the roadmap for implementing sustainable development across the globe, was that developing countries would adopt the strategies in return for aid, technology transfer and capacity building by developed countries. It comes as no surprise this has not quite been realized and at Rio+20 the G77 successfully used this as a pretext to block any progress. What the EU failed to see is that while it came to Rio with a primarily environmental agenda, the G77 was almost entirely focused on development. That the EU grossly underestimated how deeply entrenched this historical injustice is in the minds of the G77 negotiators, and that together with other developed nations it refused to be flexible on this topic, was a major mistake.

Self inflicted pain

When Brazil launched the idea of a Rio+20 conference in the UN General Assembly, EU countries were extremely reluctant, but then again it couldn’t refuse. After all, who can oppose a strong sustainable development agenda? Not only were they facing a ferocious economic crisis, they also feared Rio+20 would overlap with existing negotiation processes. Even civil society was rather slow to take action. In order to find added value, they introduced the ‘green economy’ concept as a conference theme. But this new notion proved obscure to many in the G77, with Latin-American countries fearing the commodification of nature and Asian countries seeing it as a set of green conditionalities which would raise new trade barriers. Compromise was found instead on ‘green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication’. As a result of this wavering, most parties and certainly the EU lacked a common and well defined strategy, nor did they develop a solid set of priorities prior to the actual summit. Thus Rio+20 got off to a bad start.

Furthermore, Commissioner Potočnik and the Danish presidency led by Environment Minister Ida Auken seemed to live on planet Utopia. Until the final negotiation days they insisted on imposing a ‘Green Economy Roadmap’. Focusing solely on the environmental pillar, this plan alienated potential G77 partners who were more interested in addressing social elements. The same applies to the admirable but dogged battle for the upgrade of UNEP, which would strengthen the environment pillar in the overall UN system – a much needed institutional reform. In the face of insurmountable obstacles, the EU continued to fight a lost battle. That is why it was drained of considerable political capital it could have spent elsewhere.

The outreach of the EU towards other parties on many of its key topics was ‘too little too late’. That the Commission only included environment staff was another decisive mistake. Despite the urgency on the environmental level, it was a tactical blunder not to immerse other departments, in particular the social pillar. Granted, these proved to be rather reluctant themselves, fearing a competing agenda that would infringe on their budgets. By neglecting the interplay between the three dimensions, the EU positioned itself in a weak spot. Lessons to keep in mind for the negotiations at the next General Assembly sessions.

Olivier Beys