Sustainable development—definition and application at European Union (EU) level — practice note

LexisNexis Legal & Professional, LexisNexis UK, LexisPSL, Environment, 17 July 2017

The definition of sustainable development at EU level

The Consolidated Versions of the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (the EU Treaties) set out the constitutional framework for the EU. The Treaties do not attempt to define sustainable development or impose an EU-wide adoption of a common definition.

By default, EU institutions, such as the European Commission, generally rely on some variation of the Brundtland definition and the three pillars concept, also known as the triple bottom line of sustainable development.

The Brundtland definition and the three pillars of sustainable development

The Brundtland Report, as the report entitled Our Common Future is widely referred to, defines sustainable development as,

Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It [sustainable development] contains within it two key concepts:

  • the concept of needs, in particular the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
  • the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs.


Bruntdland Report

The United Nations (UN) General Assembly endorsed the Brundtland definition in Resolution 42/187.

The United Nations 2005 World Summit Outcome Document refers to the 'interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars' of sustainable development, which are:

  • economic development,
  • social development, and
  • environmental protection

See Practice Note Sustainable development—definition and application at international level.

Sustainable development in the EU treaties

A paper by the Centre for International Sustainable Development Law (CISD) states that sustainable development has shaped international law in part by being increasingly featured in multi-lateral agreements as an object and purpose.



In the Consolidated Version of the Treaty on European Union, sustainable development is stated as a clear objective in the preamble. In articles 3 and 5, respectively, the EU commits itself to work towards sustainable development internally and in its relations externally. This dual objective was previously established in article 2 of the Treaty of Lisbon 2007, in force since 2009.

A single reference to sustainable development is made in Article 11 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (ex Article 6 TEC), which states as follows:

'Environmental protection requirements must be integrated into the definition and implementation of the Union’s policies and activities, in particular with a view to promoting sustainable development.' (Integration Principle)

Although sustainable development is not defined at constitutional level, it is a clear objective of the EU Treaties: decision-making at EU level must account for environmental protection requirements and strive to uphold sustainable development.

This has been so since the Treaty of Amsterdam was signed in 1997.

Sustainable development in EU policy

The European Union is a signatory to the Rio Declaration, product of the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro (Earth Summit). The Rio Declaration is a statement of 27 principles upon which signatories agreed to base their actions when addressing environmental and development matters.

In ‘Rio +5’ the UN General Assembly held a special session to assess the status of Agenda 21, an action plan for the realisation of sustainable development devised at the Earth Summit. Signatories to the Rio Declaration, including the EU and its Member States, committed to adopt sustainable development strategies.

See Practice Note Sustainable development—definition and application at international level.

Draft declaration on guiding principles for sustainable development (draft declaration)

In the Draft Declaration adopted in 2005, the European Commission reaffirmed that sustainable development is a key objective of the EU Treaties and all European Community policies falling subject to them.


Draft Declaration on Guiding Principles for Sustainable Development ('Draft Declaration')

The document outlines key objectives, which are:

  • environmental protection
  • social equity and cohesion
  • economic prosperity
  • meeting international responsibilities

It also contains the guiding principles for better policy development. Amongst these are:

  • promotion and protection of fundamental rights
  • involvement of businesses and social partners
  • make polluters pay

The EU Sustainable Development Strategy (EU SDS):

In 2001 the European Union adopted its first Sustainable Development Strategy in Gothenburg. The strategy was renewed in 2006 for an enlarged EU.

The renewed EU SDS reiterated the key objectives and principles listed in the Draft Declaration from 2005.

The document also considers:

  • the key challenges to consolidating the EU’s commitment to sustainable development
  • corresponding operational targets and objectives for overcoming each challenge
  • what the actions in response to each challenges should include
  • inter-sectoral measures and the role of education and training, research and development, and different financial mechanisms

The main challenges foreseen by the European Commission are as follows:

  • climate change and clean energy
  • sustainable transport
  • sustainable consumption and production
  • conservation and management of natural resources
  • public health
  • social inclusion, demography and migration
  • global poverty and sustainable development challenges

Since 2007 the EU SDS has been accompanied by progress reports identifying progress on policy under the governance structure implemented by the 2006 EU SDS. However, this has not necessarily translated into concrete action.


COM(2007) 642

The 2009 review of the EU SDS looks at mainstreaming sustainable development into EU policies and examines the progress made in relation to each key challenge and associated targets, objectives, and actions listed in the 2006 EU SDS. The review also pinpoints matters of urgent action and takes stock of what is required to take the EU SDS into the future.


COM(2009) 400

Eurostat monitoring reports on the EU SDS

In 2007 Eurostat published a monitoring report producing statistical material on the progress of the EU SDS. The data takes into account a set of EU-established sustainable development indicators (SDIs). This report constituted a significant input when developing the first progress report on the EU SDS.



The report is published every two years. The most recent Eurostat Monitoring Report currently available was published in 2015, which looks at data from 1990 to the most recent available period.


Eurostat 2015 monitoring report of the EU sustainable development strategy

See Practice Note Sustainability indicators.

Sustainable development in EU law


Sustainable development was initially reflected in EU law through the above-mentioned 'integration principle'. Integration principle provides for environmental protection through inclusion of, for example, environmental considerations at the earliest stage of the legislative process.

There continues to be no hard law definition, nor are there any provisions which establish sustainable development as a legal principle.

However, in recent years, EU has mainstreamed the objective of sustainable development by incorporating it into a broad range of laws. For instance, the EU has passed over 200 pieces of environmental legislation.

From a procedural perspective, the integration principle has been given effect through the various Directives on Environmental Assessment, such as article 1 of the Strategic Environment Assessment Directive (2001/42/EC).



Strategic Environment Assessment Directive 2001/42/EC

Case law

Without an official definition under primary EU law, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has no means or base from which to interpret the objective of sustainable development under the EU Treaties. The ECJ has not elaborated a definition beyond what is found in the EU Treaties and other legislation and policies.

To date, very few references have been made to sustainable development in EU case law. The main references have been made in the following:

  • Greece v Council (Case C-62/88), which confirmed the integration principle
  • Artegodan v Commission (Case Number T 74/00/2002), in which the Court of First Instance stated that the principle on ‘the protection of public health, safety and environment” is to take precedence over economic reform
  • Commission v Council (Case C-91/05), also known as the ECOWAS small arms case