Farmers call for investment to make rural areas ‘worth living in’

80,000 people have left Croatia in the last four years to look for work elsewhere. [Jakub Zajic/Shutterstock]

Europe needs to address the rural exodus with policies and investments that make farming an attractive career choice. But political uncertainty over the bloc’s agricultural policy is keeping investors away, experts said at an event organised by EURACTIV in Brussels on Tuesday (17 October).

Rural areas cover more than half of the EU but they are not fulfilling their economic and social potential. Unemployment is high and populations are ageing as young people move to the cities to seek new opportunities.

For the businesses and communities that remain, a lack of crucial infrastructure investment is squeezing economic development and making it hard to convince young people that rural life can offer a future worth staying for.

“If we want to keep rural areas alive in future, if we want to keep farming alive, we need to attract young people into farming,” said Jannes Maes the president of the European Council of Young Farmers (CEJA).

“Young people need to be able to see that it is worth living in rural areas, that farming can earn them a living and allow them to provide for their family.”

The feeling was echoed by Stephen Meredith, the deputy policy manager of IFOAM EU, the organisation representing Europe’s organic farmers, who believes that farming should be at the core of rural development policy. “Agriculture is the backbone of rural areas. If we have no farmers it will be even more difficult to address the rural exodus issue.”

But farmers’ earnings are just 40% of the average across the EU and less than half of rural areas have access to high-speed internet, which is holding back innovation and making it harder for farmers to grow their businesses.

This is turning young people away from farming, the speakers agreed, and adding to the problem of the rural exodus.

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Political uncertainty hampers investment

For Josefine Loriz-Hoffmann, director of rural development in the European Commission’s agriculture department (DG AGRI), rural infrastructure investment is largely a question of “political courage” in the EU member states.

The EU can “provide the toolbox”, she said, but individual countries must decide where and what to invest.

Yet for member states, finding the money to make the investments needed is not easy. Pekka Pesonen, the secretary-general of the EU farmers and agri-cooperatives association Copa-Cogeca, blamed Europe’s “inconsistent” policy decisions for keeping private investors away.

“The political environment in Europe is just too unstable,” he said, adding that this had cut off sources of money that could have contributed to growth in agriculture.

The head of Copa-Cogeca argued that there are many examples of where “the EU says science prevails in its policymaking until it doesn’t like a particular outcome”. He urged policymakers to seek consistency.

Complementarity with other policy areas

With pressure building on the common agricultural policy (CAP) budget, and the possibility that Brexit will leave a big hole in the EU’s post-2020 finances, several speakers pointed out that it is more important than ever to make sure that farmers benefit from a range of EU policies, beyond the common agricultural policy (CAP).

In order to maximise the effect of the funding that is available, EU countries should look for “synergies” between complementary policy areas, urged Loriz-Hoffmann. “Member states should do more to combine funding possibilities, using EU regional development funds and social development funds,” she said.

The Commission official added that national capitals need to have an internal discussion about increasing the complementarity of the projects they fund, to make sure they benefit rural development wherever possible.

Croatian MEP Marijana Petir (EPP group), said the fact that 80,000 young Croatians have left their mainly rural homes in the last four years to work in low-skilled jobs around the EU shows that member states and the CAP itself must prioritise regional development to make sure it is not seen as “shameful” to live and work in a rural village.

Rural areas have bad internet access in most member states

Many rural parts of the EU have poor or no broadband internet, even as lawmakers in Brussels discuss new rules to speed up connectivity.