Despite their strengths, rural areas face significant challenges that have yet to be addressed: population decline and ageing, fewer job opportunities, lack of access to high-quality services, environmental pressure, lower connectivity, and limited access to innovation.
This translates into a feeling of abandonment by those who live in and are from rural areas, a very real feeling that is at the bottom of a growing discontent among rural populations with what they perceive as their alienation from political decision-making processes.
In parallel, this alienation from politics may have the perverse effect of leading these communities to a progressive detachment from political life and disenchantment with democracy.
There is an objective need to amplify rural voices, to give them dimension and collective strength, to bring them to the centre of the political debate. In the end, this is not only about rural regions, but about ensuring territorial and social cohesion, the very fabric of the European project today and tomorrow.
Local stakeholders play a crucial role in rural Europe. Several studies have confirmed that residents of rural areas tend to trust more in the levels of administration and decision-making that are closest to them, mainly because they have greater knowledge of the dynamics in each territory.
Local authorities and local civil society should therefore be active throughout the entire process of decision-making, implementation and monitoring of policies.
What’s more, empowering rural stakeholders in decision-making reinforces the legitimacy of decisions, enhances their sense of ownership over the actions to be implemented, and contributes to a stronger sense of belonging.
There is no real territorial cohesion without social cohesion. And there is no social cohesion without the feeling of ownership over the processes that affect one’s life.
The European Parliament’s recently approved report on a long-term vision for the EU’s rural areas is a contribution to make rural voices and concerns heard on the European stage, while also insisting on the effective application of the partnership principle, which implies close cooperation with public authorities at all levels in Member States, social partners and civil society organisations.
It’s time to create the conditions for rural voices to be heard and, more importantly, heeded
But local authorities, associations, businesses and citizens – particularly in more depopulated and remote areas – do not always have the tools that would allow them to play an active role in decision-making and to take full advantage of existing opportunities.
To pave the way for this transformation in the rural world, we must create the conditions for true rural empowerment. Among other things, that means improving access to broadband internet, good jobs, affordable and sustainable energy sources, and high-quality services from education to health and cultural pursuits.
European and national policymakers are crucial in building this capacity. They can develop innovative solutions and unblock resources that may help to create such conditions, therefore reducing the existing disparities between urban and rural areas, promoting social cohesion and a balanced territorial development.
Rural areas have been put on hold for too long. Now it’s time to create the conditions for rural voices to be heard and, more importantly, heeded.
We must do so with an eye towards the future, so that Europe will have not only a vision but also a true rural strategy, articulated with national and regional policies, and based on the centrality of local players in the creation of vibrant rural communities.