The European Commission unveiled on Wednesday (30 June) its long-term vision for the EU’s rural areas, proposing a rural pact and a rural action plan aimed at making those regions stronger, connected, and prosperous.
Almost 30% of the European population – 137 million people in total – live in rural areas, which stretch over 80% of the EU’s territory.
With this new vision, the EU executive wants to generate new momentum for rural regions by bridging the digital gap and making areas with low population size or density partners in green transition.
“Rural areas are often forgotten but are the beating heart of our societies,” said the Commission vice-president for demography, Dubravka Šuica.
The communication was developed after a wide public consultation from September to December last year and it builds on the concerns and hopes of people living in rural areas.
According to Cohesion Commissioner Elisa Ferreira, ignoring geography and territory in the EU policymaking can lead to what one of the Commission studies described as ‘geography of discontent’.
“And we know how hard this discontent can play on a political and electoral term but also in relation to the capacity of an economy to grow in a sustainable way,” the Portuguese Commissioner added.
Challenges and opportunities
The Commission’s communication identifies the challenges rural areas are facing as well as the opportunities available to these regions.
“However, we have to provide the right tools for these rural communities to take full advantage of the opportunities ahead and tackle the challenges they are currently facing,” Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski told a press conference.
According to the Commission, a higher unemployment rate for young people, gender wage and employment gap, as well as access to quality public services and infrastructures are among the factors that contributed to the lower attractiveness of rural areas as places to live and work over the past years.
Notably, the effective deployment of digital infrastructure remains challenging. For instance, only 59% of households in rural regions have access to next-generation access (NGA) broadband (>30Mbps), compared to 87% of the households in the rest of the EU.
Opportunities for a relaunch of rural areas have been created by the transition towards a greener society and economy, as well as from the rise of bioeconomy and tourism sectors, the communication reads.
According to Wojciechowski, the reform of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will contribute to the vision for rural areas by supporting the resilience and diversification of the agricultural sector in line with environmental care and climate action.
“The connection between what was adopted today [the long term vision] and what happened last week [the CAP deal] is very important,” said the Polish Commissioner.
The CAP’s second pillar, the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD), is one of the key sources of EU funding for rural areas
For Wojciechowski, the greening of European agriculture will be crucial in the future to avoid the depopulation of rural areas, as a high concentration of food production and industrial farming have been the cause of the problem.
The European young farmers association (CEJA) welcomed the vision and, particularly, the establishment of a rural observatory and Toolkit on funding opportunities, which they consider great instruments to better inform on policymaking.
“The long-term vision takes a clear stand in favour of creating new economic opportunities in rural areas and enabling young entrepreneurs like us to achieve their projects,” commented CEJA President Diana Lenzi.
The EU’s cohesion policy is the other major source of support for rural areas, as it promotes and supports the harmonious overall development of member states, regions and territories.
In the previous budget period from 2014 to 2020, spending on rural areas represented a fourth of the investments in cohesion policy.
“But when identifying these investments, we are very aware of a striking fact that there is an incredible diversity even within certain rural areas and regions,” warned Commissioner Ferreira.
Among the measures included in the rural action plan, there will be the setting up of a rural revitalisation platform, a one-stop-shop platform for information on existing projects and funding possibilities for rural communities, rural project holders, and local authorities.
However, another challenge is to better integrate and create synergy between different items of expenditure in the EU’s budget.
“Europe’s agricultural policy plays a key role for our rural areas but they can exit the crisis and become competitive only with a strong and coordinated intervention of all EU policies for cohesion, innovation and recovery,” commented Apostolos Tzitzikostas, president of the European Committee of the Regions (CoR).
In March 2021, the CoR’s Commission for natural resources (NAT) adopted a statement to express concern that rural areas may benefit less from the European Union’s plans to help rebuild a post-COVID-19 Europe that is greener, more digital and more resilient.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]