The insufficient concreteness of the European circular transition

According to the ECA report entitled ‘Circular Economy – Despite EU Action, the Transition in Member States is slow’. In fact, it is almost at a standstill in many European countries. A problematic delay that is also turning into a considerable waste of financial resources


Many words, few deeds. Very few, indeed. There is a lot of talk about the circular economy in Europe, but the European Court of Auditors’ (ECA) Special Report 17/2023 shows that not enough is being done. Talking is not enough. What is needed above all is concreteness, which, at the moment, there is none, or if there is, it is insufficient. The title of the report is enough to make this clear: ‘Circular Economy – Despite EU action, the transition in member states is slow‘. Why?

The theory

To be harsh, we could point out that European countries used the EUR 10 billion received from the EU as a stimulus for the circular economy, mainly for waste management. In short, 10 billion are invested in rubbish. Instead, the aim of the funding was to reduce the amount of waste through innovations, particularly in product design. Since about 80% of a product’s environmental impact depends on its design, in order to minimise this environmental impact, products, and production processes must be redesigned according to circular economy principles, in line with the EU’s priority to prevent waste generation.

Insufficient concreteness

Going into the details of the special report, we read how the EU has made more than EUR 10 billion available between 2016 and 2020. But “the European Commission and member states have not used the funding in a targeted and effective way for investments in the circular design of products and production processes. The funding has mostly been used for waste management, whose contribution to reducing environmental impact is less effective.”

The rate of circularity

The tool used to measure the progress of EU Member States is the circularity rate. That is the share of material resources used from recycled waste materials in production. A higher circularity rate – Eurostat explains – means that more secondary materials replace primary raw materials, thus reducing the environmental impacts of raw material extraction. Well, between 2015 and 2021, the circularity rate for the EU to 27 countries increased by only 0.4 percentage points (from 11.3 to 11.7 percent).

Not only that, it even decreased in 2021 compared to the previous year. This is still higher than the most recent global circularity rate of 7.6 percent (the report does not indicate the year ed.), down from 9.1 percent in 2018. Moreover, progress varies significantly from one state to another.

Slow, too slow

Reported by the Court of Auditors, the EU target of doubling by 2030 the circularity rate achieved in 2020 (and thus reaching 23.6 percent) appears “hardly achievable. Also, looking at the period 2015-2021, seven countries (Lithuania, Sweden, Romania, Denmark, Luxembourg, Finland and Poland) have even gone backward. A scenario that led Annemie Turtelboom, a European Court of Auditors member, to comment: “The actions taken so far by the EU have been ineffective, and the transition to the circular economy is almost at a standstill in many European countries“.

The Court of Auditors concluded the Special Report with a number of recommendations to the Commission. First, improve monitoring of Member States’ transition to a circular economy. Second: analyse the reasons why EU funding for circular design has been under-utilised and assess how to incentivise it further. The Commission responded by stating that it will ‘implement the recommendations made’, pointing out that ‘circular economy policies need to be developed according to a life-cycle approach‘. (mv)

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