Rural areas cover half of Europe and are home to around 20 percent of the population. However, rural areas are also among the poorest regions in the European Union, with with income support through direct payments significantly below the European average.
As an MEP, I am one of the co-Chairs of The European Parliament’s Intergroup on Rural, Mountainous and Remote Areas (RUMRA) & Smart Villages and member of the Regional Development Committee.
As such, I believe that Europe’s rural areas hold great potential for the future. Not only do rural areas offer a home to many people among Europe, they are also home to a huge range of plants and animals, making them vitally important to Europe’s biodiversity. These aspects also make them a place for leisure and recreation.
“The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the problems that rural areas had been fighting in recent decades”
Yet there are a lot of challenges to overcome. The COVID-19 crisis obviously created many problems, but at the same time also offered quite a few solutions.
These regions, far from the city as they are, often suffer from demographic change, as young people tend to move away for apprenticeships, study and better jobs, despite that fact that young people are also needed in these areas. It is crucial for the different transformation processes to ensure all types and ages of people are active within rural areas.
Transformations such as building an eco-social economy to tackle climate change and making a just transition from using coal to renewable energies depend on creative and highly educated people making their contribution. It also needs handcraft and mid-market companies to strengthen regional production.
The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the problems that rural areas had been facing in recent decades. In particular, the lack of digitalisation and health contribution has deteriorated over the last year or so, further spreading injustice and inequality.
The health sector has been cut back in most of Europe’s rural areas over the last few years. Demographic change and skills shortages have led to many medical practices remaining vacant. As a result, it is harder for people in the countryside to access a doctor than it is in urban areas.
Worse still, the doctors that are available are often far away. With no trains or buses running, it is even harder to reach them particularly for elderly people without cars.
Demographic change and skills shortages are not the only the reason for a poorer health distribution; money shortages over the last years have also been an issue. Many countries tried to transform clinics and health distribution into companies that make money.
As a consequence, many institutions were ultimately closed down. Their reachability was reduced, equipment was cut back and accessibility for people in rural areas got worse in comparison to those living in the cities. Through this, the health sector within the EU failed.
The inequalities seen during the COVID-19 crisis cannot only be viewed in terms of health distribution but also in terms of digitalisation. Within Europe, the level of digitalisation in rural areas varies. Some regions already have good internet connectivity; those regions had a great opportunity to benefit from the COVID-19 crisis.
While there was basically no freedom left for people living within Europe‘s cities, people in small towns or the countryside were able to maintain their quality of life. As a result, a lot of people from the cities moved to rural regions to come together in co-working spaces.
Regions without good internet connectivity suffered even more during the crisis, because while thousands of people were able to work from home, large parts of the population in more remote areas had no chance to work from home or from an office.
“The inequalities seen during the COVID-19 crisis cannot only be viewed in terms of health distribution but also in terms of digitalisation”
The different outcomes of rural areas with varying infrastructure has brought these differences into sharp relief; the problems made inequality even worse.
We can identify how the COVID-19 crisis was not only a potential problem in big cities around Europe. Rather, the lack o f infrastructure, health distribution and digitalisation in rural areas has sharpened inequality within different regions in Europe.
The European Union and its Member States must apply effort to developing rural areas to the levels seen in urban regions. The potential for rural Europe and those that live in rural area is huge and only needs the EU to realise the opportunity. To do so, we must consider rural areas in Europe’s COVID-19 recovery plans.