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The implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is a joint responsibility of civil society, EU and the member States' authorities, as well as the private sector. This was one of the main conclusions of the high level conference on SDGs and initiatives for Sustainable Global Value Chains co-hosted on 30 October 2018 by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), the European Commission and the Social and Economic Council of the Netherlands. Experts also agreed that a combination of regulatory measures and incentives to voluntary initiatives is crucial to enhance private companies' and citizens' involvement.
Representatives from businesses, trade unions, NGOs and public institutions from all across Europe discussed the best ways to implement the EU strategy for sustainable development. The opening session was co-chaired by Luca Jahier, President of the EESC; Frans Timmermans, Vice-President of the European Commission; and Sigrid Kaag, Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation of the Netherlands, which agreed on the importance of sustainable development and the essential role of the civil society in the implementation of the necessary measures. The conference was structured in four parallel workshops dealing with global value chains and corporate social responsibility in the textile sector, the banking sector, the extractive industries and the agro-food sector. These workshops were addressed to the representatives of the civil society and were aimed to identify and share successful experiences and explore which initiatives could be scaled up to EU-level.
One of the most developed points was the dichotomy between multi-stakeholder approaches to responsible business conduct, where businesses, trade unions, NGOs and government define together what measures to apply on a voluntary basis, and the need of binding regulation. The general consensus was that both approaches are equally needed. According to Joseph Wilde, senior researcher at OECD Watch,
legislation is essential to ensure that minimum common standards are respected and incentives can help small and medium-size enterprises to adhere to these principles without being burdened with additional tasks or costs. It was also agreed that the choice between legislation and voluntary measures should be made on a case-by-case basis and that frontrunners companies should be rewarded, as pointed out by Francis West, Director of Shift Business Learning Program.
The need of globalization of labour rights was also discussed. Many participants expressed their concern for the fact that human rights have not always been duly prioritized by the EU in its trade agreements with third countries. Along the same lines, Peter Schmidt, chair of the EESC Sustainable Development Observatory, raised the issue of fair prices and fair wages for producers, not only in developing third countries but also within Europe.
Alberto Mazzola, chair of the International Trade Follow-up Committee of the EESC, closed the conference expressing his view that international trade will substantially change in the upcoming years. Not only SDGs will become an essential part of it, but also the real content of trade agreements will be different, with a growing importance of data with respect to goods. Further debates will then be necessary to discuss the added value and the importance of trade agreements with the participation of civil society. Mazzola announced that the EESC is working on two own-initiative opinions on this topic that will probably be presented in the January plenary session, related with the reform of the World Trade Oganization and the role of the domestic advisory groups on trade agreements.