“(...) The Union shall aim at reducing disparities between the levels of development of the various regions and the backwardness of the least favoured regions. Among the regions concerned, particular attention shall be paid to rural areas (...)” Article 174 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union is unambiguous: Europe’s rural areas need special attention and solutions to promote economic, social and territorial cohesion.
Following several initiatives at European level for cities and urban areas - such as the Pact of Amsterdam’s ‘Urban Agenda’ - it is also important that citizens in remote rural areas don’t feel left behind by European politics.
“With challenges such as climate change, demography and the digital transformation, we need to have an idea on how to include and encourage rural areas”
This is why, in its 2021 work programme, the European Commission proposed a Communication on the long-term vision for rural areas, under the priority “A new push for European democracy”. In her speech to the European Parliament one year ago, President von der Leyen explained the need to bring new life to rural areas. Several Member States, such as Italy and the Czech Republic, also have national strategies to strengthen rural areas.
As a member of Parliament’s Regional Development Committee (REGI), I certainly appreciate these initiatives. All are playing a major role in the new Cohesion Policy for 2021-27. With challenges such as climate change, demography and the digital transformation, we need to have an idea on how to include and encourage rural areas.
I would not go as far as President von der Leyen, who stated that “rural areas are (...) the heartbeat of our economy”, because our committee always tries to avoid the impression of a contest between rural and urban areas. Instead, it tries to create a sense that together, Europe’s regions can create the best living conditions for citizens - cities depend on rural areas and vice versa.
However, gathering the views of rural communities and businesses via public consultations has been a good way of learning more about their core needs and wishes, to help them to reach their full potential in the coming decades.
As previously mentioned, Cohesion Policy has been, and will continue to be, the perfect tool to support rural areas in their development. A substantial number of rural areas are among the least-favoured regions in the EU, with a GDP per head significantly below the European average. In the last programming period, 2014-20, more than €33bn was to be invested in rural areas. This represents almost 25 percent of all Cohesion Policy investments that target a specific type of territory.
These figures, however, only capture the investments clearly allocated by programmes to rural areas. More than 58 percent of Cohesion Policy investments are not linked to any specific type of territory. It is therefore likely that rural areas are actually benefiting from more Cohesion Policy investments than these numbers would suggest.
The toolbox provided by Cohesion Policy include the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the European Social Fund (ESF) - both help fund assistance for creating jobs outside the agriculture industry, support SMEs and fund infrastructure in villages.
Topics such as social inclusion and the fight against poverty, which in my view may have benefited from a greater focus in the communication, can also be addressed by the structural funds. Rural areas need support. What they don’t need are complex rules and administrative burdens when accessing structural funds. Therefore, I continue to regret the fact that the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) is no longer part of the Common Provisions Regulation.
“In her speech to the European Parliament one year ago, President von der Leyen explained the need to bring new life to rural areas”
This Regulation acts as the ‘umbrella’ for all other structural funds, and it would have made sense to have common rules and guidelines for funds that have the same objectives. Why a fund that supports ‘regional development’ and one that supports ‘rural development’ do not follow the same rules and share common provisions, remains unclear to me.
If we want the Communication - and the promotion of rural areas in Europe - to gain momentum, we need to keep discussing them. The recent online public consultation by the Commission showed that, among other issues, improved infrastructure - particularly in terms of public transport - is important to people. This, as well as other insights from ‘on the ground’, will certainly be reflected in the European Parliament’s initiative report.
Whether this will be done by the Parliament’s Agriculture and Rural Development Committee (AGRI), with opinions from other committees, or as part of a joint report from AGRI and REGI, remains a matter of discussion within the Parliament. Whatever the outcome, I am convinced that the European Parliament will send a clear message to rural areas and the citizens who live there: We feel committed to Article 174 of the European Treaty, and we will continue to pay special attention to rural areas. You will not be left behind.