3 mins

The future of Europe will depend on how we deal with rural areas

Peter Schmidt
Stefano Palmieri

The EU enjoys incredible territorial diversity, and we need to make sure that people are able to make the most of the inherent features of the areas in which they live. Now more than ever before, the COVID-19 crisis has shown that no EU citizen should be left behind and disadvantaged, for example in terms of access to public services, especially in health, housing and employment opportunities, simply because they live in one region rather than another. Here, territorial cohesion comes into play, aiming for more balanced and sustainable development, in accordance with the territory where one lives.

That is why the Treaty of Lisbon called on the EU and Member States to pay particular attention to reducing disparities between the levels of development of the various regions and the backwardness of the least-favoured regions.

EU rural and urban territories are not developing evenly. It is critical to foster policies that curb this trend, ensure a fair and sustainable transition to a wellbeing economy in all areas and promote population rebalancing. For years, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) has stressed the need to reduce the development gap between different territories. In a recent own-initiative opinion on 'An integrated approach for the EU's rural areas, with particular emphasis on vulnerable regions' the EESC has drawn attention to those regions currently threatened by stagnation, depopulation or desertification.

The damage caused by having swathes of deserted countryside in Europe is not just economic but also social, environmental and cultural.

It is therefore critical to deal with two equally severe forms of degradation: on one hand, the excessive pressure on air, water and soil due to the concentration of economic activity in urban areas, and, on the other hand, the abandonment of large areas of territory, whose biological and landscape diversity is declining irreparably.

"The EESC proposes a 'territorial contract 'between urban society and the rural world, participatory and adapted to the characteristics of the territories"

The new Territorial Agenda 2030 aims to tackle these disparities among regions, including in rural areas. The new agenda was adopted in December 2020, when organised civil society contributed its opinion on 'the Revision of the Territorial Agenda of the EU, the Leipzig Charter and the Urban Agenda for the EU'. It refers to 'Better balanced territorial development utilising Europe's diversity', whereby all sectors must take action to encourage neighbourhoods, communities, municipalities, counties, regions and Member States to coordinate their responses to global societal challenges and to improve working, living and business conditions in all places.

Rural areas, which play a critical role in economic and social cohesion, in regions' resilience, and in the contribution of countless services from various local ecosystems, including food production, should, hand in hand with urban areas, strengthen their socio-economic prosperity, innovation capacity, positions in global value chains and global competitiveness across the EU, to achieve a sustainable and inclusivewellbeing economy,in line with the objectives of the European Green and Social Deal, the Next Generation EU recovery package and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

"The damage caused by having swathes of deserted countryside in Europe is not just economic but also social, environmental and cultural"

Civil society's contribution is crucial in this context, and the EESC has always supported a bottom-up approach and the empowerment of communities to come up with solutions. Local civil society, workers and business actors as well as citizens need to be engaged to unlock the immense potential of rural/urban communities, and to co-design and foster their sustainable development.

The EESC proposes a 'territorial contract 'between urban society and the rural world, which should be participatory and adapted to the characteristics of the territories, and should preserve their historical, cultural and natural heritage.

We call for a holistic approach for a sustainable urban/ rural developmentthat precludes policies and institutions from operating in isolation. For this, institutional coordination, integration and alignment are key (linking rural and urban policies with all other relevant policies, such as food, climate, biodiversity, poverty reduction, land use, transport, infrastructure, services of general interest, new activities based on the circular economy and the bio economy, immigration, and the creation of employment and high-quality jobs). The EESC will also actively contribute to the EU's long-term vision for rural areas that is being developed by the European Commission (expected in June 2021).

Stefano Palmieri is the president of the Economic and Monetary Union, Economic and Social Cohesion Section, EESC

Peter Schmidt is the president of the Agriculture, Rural Development and the Environment Section, EESC

This article appears in Rural areas: an eye to the future

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