Urban and rural disparities still a thorn in Europe’s regional development

Cohesion policy invested in sustainable transport. Here, a public tram ferry on the River Brda in Bydgoszcz, Poland in August 2017. [Shutterstock]

Continuous depopulation of the EU’s rural regions and interregional disparities remain a serious threat for the economic and demographic base of the EU regions in the future, stakeholders highlighted during a conference on territorial divergencies in the EU held in Brussels on Tuesday (27 November).

“Even if we see a positive development pattern of reducing disparities among countries, development trends risk to further accelerate regional disparities and increase intra- and inter- regional disparities”, underlined Ilona Raugze, the director of ESPON EGTC, a European Grouping on Territorial Cooperation.

Smooth transition to this new reality should be a primary objective for Europe, she said in her speech.

However, “this requires coordinated government-led interventions and planned, strategic coordination tailored to local conditions”.

Rural development is one of the Cohesion’s main policy objectives, though it still seems to carry irresolvable burdens alongside with it, especially in relation to the application of funds and the management of demographic changes throughout Europe.

“Accepting shrinkage can help to reorient rural policies and investment decisions to re-grow greener, smaller, and provide new openings to be innovative, modernise governance and public services through more holistic, proactive and place-based approaches consistent with 21st-century realities,” added the ESPON Director.

In any case, European development starts from a good collaboration between different European realities, said Italian MEP Mercedes Bresso (S&D).

The priority now, she added, should be to ensure that common objectives can be reached between the rural and the urban areas.

The ones left behind

For the inner peripheries, better known as the “places left behind”, development shortages halt their socio-economic progress, now more than ever.

The disconnection of those areas from their wider regions, due to structural shortcomings like limited access to services or cooperation and poor transport facilities, leads to their underdevelopment and the loss of connection with the entire EU territory, according to Raugze.

The issue involves a big proportion of the EU’s regions, as more than 45% of the EU territory is covered by inner peripheries. Furthermore, 80% of those peripheries with low economic potential are situated in non-urban areas, according to ESPON’s research results.

“We call for an increased political attention to these places and for policy measures that address the different aspects of connectivity- either physical, economic or relational”, Raugze highlighted.

Diverse priorities remain to be addressed

Until today, many priorities and shortcomings remain to be addressed in terms of Cohesion’s final legal framework.

The context in which member states and local authorities will implement policies and funds in the next programming period is yet to be defined and EU leaders are calling for immediate action.

Especially as the state of play might change significantly, particularly for local authorities, given that the Commission’s new proposal involves a more Brussels-based approach and less control of the programs at a local level.

“There is no real guarantee that there is going to be real cooperation with local authorities”, stressed Anna Lisa Boni, EUROCITIES secretary-general.

Apart from the effective and immediate application and use of the funds – which still is at risk- even more priorities arise, especially in relation to the environmental needs and urban governance, she added.

“Cohesion Policy should be created as an answer to the everyday challenges of the European Union,” underlined Bulgarian MEP Iskra Mihaylova (ALDE).

The focus from now on should be on the development of the policy to change the way challenges are faced as a total and in accordance with the differentiated needs among regions, she explained.

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