Rural regions cover 44.6 percent of the EU’s total area and are home to more than 93 million people, almost 21 percent of the total EU population. These regions face a range of challenges, including demographic change, leading to a decline in the number of people of working age, a weak labour market and even depopulation of certain rural and remote areas.
Other challenges facing rural areas over urban ones include the lack of infrastructure and service provision, a poorly diversified economy, low incomes coupled with a higher poverty and social exclusion risk, farmland abandonment, a lack of education facilities and high numbers of early school leavers.
In addition, there is a digital gap and divide in the form of a lack of reliable internet connections limiting both individuals and businesses.
“If COVID-19 has taught us one lesson, then it is that our bustling, highly individualistic city life is damaging to our health, both physically and mentally”
These circumstances have been perceived as representing a ‘vicious circle, driving rural decline’, as more people move to urban areas in search of better job prospects and adequate public services.
As a consequence, the continuous growth of urban areas creates additional challenges such as increased traffic congestion, poorer air quality, criminality, loneliness and insufficient access to good education and health facilities, to name only the most pressing.
If COVID-19 has taught us anything, then it is that our bustling, highly individualistic city life is damaging to our health, both physically and mentally.
We can only fight this disease by respecting the space of others, dispensing with the wasteful and concentrating on the essential. If we can offer the economic, educational and medical opportunities of our cities in our rural areas, then our villages can provide a more healthy and respectful life for everyone.
Land flight has been a product of necessity. People do not leave their homes and wider families lightly. If we turn this trend around, we won’t just improve the situation of rural areas, but we’ll be able to offer a genuine opportunity to everyone, one that includes answers to our current ecological and medical challenges.
If we can manage to guarantee stable and fast internet in all corners of this beautiful continent, we would have a real opportunity to solve many of the pressing problems in our rural areas through the use of smart technology and bottom-up communal collaboration efforts.
In order to do so, we have ensured substantial EU funding in nearly all of our funding mechanisms in the current Multiannual Financial Framework for what we like to call ‘smart villages’.
Smart Villages are communities in rural areas that use innovative solutions to improve their resilience, building on local strengths and opportunities. By reinvesting in our countryside, rural and mountainous areas, we are aiming to simultaneously solve many of the problems Europeans - and indeed other continents – are currently facing.
Both social cohesion and interconnected, smart technology will play a large role in making our vision a reality. We should not forget that in the UK, the Brexit outcome was decided outside of the cities, in the rural parts of the population that felt left behind and ignored. We need to return ownership of their communities to these people and help counter increasing political radicalisation.
Smart Villages are a vision that can play a large factor in making Europe more carbon neutral and that lay the groundwork for the ability to easily and painlessly practice social distancing and teleworking. Most crises also embody opportunities.
Yet in order for us to harness this opportunity, we will have to be brave and think big. We may not be driven by fear, but rather be captivated by what could be. We cannot allow ourselves to be merely reactive but need to proactively shape the continent with purpose and plan.
“Smart Villages are communities in rural areas that use innovative solutions to improve their resilience, building on local strengths and opportunities”
Imagine a world where people rediscover the scenic beauty of our countryside, in which our citizens embrace social engagement, understand the advantages of cooperative structures and feel proud to be an active member of their respective community; one that embraces and harnesses technology instead of seeing it as a threat.
Solidarity, freedom of choice, family values and ecological consciousness will go hand in hand, thereby unifying the core visions of our four pro-European political families.
By offering the economic, energy, technological, educational and medical opportunities of our cities to rural areas, our Smart Villagers will be able to turn around the current problem of land-flight and brain drain in rural areas.
Villages should be equipped with a stronger synergetic interconnection between existing and new smart technologies that have the ability to communicate with one another.
These Smart Villages should be built by the villagers for the villagers and be based on the principles of a circular and sustainable life. Living in Europe’s picturesque countryside needs to become a privilege again.