Rural depopulation has been a legitimate focus of EU policy since the early days of the Union. However, in recent years it has become a very visible phenomenon, fuelling popular discontent.
Responses to COVID-19 will accelerate change and stimulate further debate. Repopulation of depleted rural areas, or at least better adjustment to the demographic status quo, are probably more feasible now than they have been for many decades. The first, very simple, step will be to acknowledge the increasing divergence between "accumulating" and "depleting" rural areas, and the need for appropriate policy responses.
"Almost 60% of predominant ly rural or intermediate NUTS 3 regions meet the criteria for rural shrinking"
Depopulation is, in itself, an issue which deserves a specific policy response. However, the various place-specific issues and processes which lie behind demographic trends, reflect the overall condition and "performance" of rural areas.
Analysis of available regional data reveals that rural shrinking is widely distributed across the EU. Almost 60% of predominantly rural or intermediate NUTS 3 regions meet the criteria. These regions cover almost 40% of the area of the EU and contain almost one third of its population.
However, the chronology of the shrinking process, and the relative importance of the two demographic components (natural change and migration) vary considerably between different parts of Europe. In terms of intensity, there is a very clear centre-periphery contrast.
The most conspicuous concentration of shrinking rural regions is along the Eastern edge of the EU, stretching from Finland, through the Baltic States, and across the former socialist Member States and into Greece.
The "belt" of rural shrinking continues along the Mediterranean through Italy, Sardinia, to Spain and Portugal. In these areas "active" shrinking, due to out migration is dominant. Residual shrinking areas (where age structure legacy effects are more in evidence) are found in the Atlantic fringe (Ireland and Scotland).
NUTS 3 is often an insufficiently granular framework to fully capture the phenomenon of rural shrinking, which is often "masked" by the presence of expanding cities and towns, which dominate the regional indicators.
In-depth case studies of shrinking rural areas in Croatia, Bulgaria, Poland, Germany, Hungary, Spain, Greece and Finland have provided fresh perspectives on contemporary shrinking processes.
Depopulation trends are commonly driven by economic restructuring, locational disadvantages, peripherization, or events and transitions. However, these four drivers are variously combined, so that each area experiences a more-or-less unique pathway. An understanding of such pathways should be the starting point for rational and tailored policy responses.
Case study findings very much underline the timeliness of a renewed vision for rural Europe which recognises the contrasting needs of depleting and accumulating rural areas, acknowledging specificities, blending mitigation with adaptation, building upon existing strengths, and responding early to new opportunities.
"it is vital that the long-t erm vision for rural areas 'rides the wave' of the spatial reorganisat ion of economic activity"
A broadening of goals, beyond economic growth, to address (territorial) inclusion, spatial justice, well-being, and a Just Transition to a decarbonised economy, present opportunities for many shrinking rural regions. However, many rural communities would benefit from strengthened and more coherent capacity to respond.
Demographic indicators, together with a place-sensitive appreciation of the processes behind them, can add value to conventional economic measurements.In terms of implementation, the formal recognition of differentiation between depleting and accumulating rural areas, so that the former may more consistently be the subject of the most appropriate interventions should be considered.
At the same time, it is vital that the long-term vision for rural areas 'rides the wave' in terms of opportunities for spatial reorganisation of economic activity in the post-COVID-19 world.
The vision should provide a platform for both strategic mitigation, and adaption, with an emphasis upon well-being, and due recognition of emerging opportunities for economic activities in a rural setting.