6 mins

Rural networking to build a Long Term Vision for Rural Areas

Enrique Nieto

In early 2020, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced the launch of a process that would lead to the development of a 'Long Term Vision for Rural Areas'. Since this announcement, the European Commission, the European Network for Rural Development (ENRD) and numerous rural stakeholders and organisations have conducted a series of activities to capture citizens? visions for Europe's rural areas for 2040. These efforts seek to provide crucial input to the development of the Commission's Communication on a long term vision for Europe?s rural areas, foreseen to be adopted in June 2021.

It is important to note that the publication of the Commission's Communication will signal the starting point, rather than the end, of a pathway to empower and support rural areas to meet the aspirations of their communities as they move towards 2040.

An important milestone in this process was a large-scale public consulation launched by the European Commission in September 2020. This collected the views and inputs of more than 2 300 respondents (from individual citizens and organisations). Also in September 2020, the Joint Research Centre, with support from an ENRD Thematic Working Group, initiated a participatory foresight exercise to develop four plausible future scenarios for rural areas in 2040.

In parallel, the ENRD supported the Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development in the development and application of a workshop package 'Welcome to our rural', designed to provide an opportunity for groups of citizens to explore their ideal vision for the future of their own rural area. Around 3 000 stakeholders from 19 Member States engaged in this exercise and submitted 166 contributions to the Commission. These inputs will complement those of other stakeholder organisations, Horizon 2020 projects, Eurobarometer polls, evaluation reports, etc. The most recent milestone was the 'Rural Vision Week: Imagining the future of Europe's rural areas organised by the ENRD in close cooperation with the European Commission. This online event brought together more than 550 participants to hear plenary interventions and updates on preparatory work for the vision, and to discuss relevant topics in eight thematic workshops and 11 stakeholder-led fringe events.

“The publication of the Commission's Communication will signal the starting point, rather than the end, of a pathway to empower and support rural areas to meet the aspirations of their communities as they move towards 2040.”

Some of the stakeholder messages emerging for the 2040 Rural Vision

Rural Europe is highly differentiated, and the nature of that differentiation should be captured and reflected in any EU-level vision. The vision needs to address the wide diversity of rural places and support the delivery of tailor-made responses that are adapted to their specificities. Stakeholders stressed the importance of shaping the vision through inclusive bottom-up processes, and also involving vulnerable groups(women, migrants, etc.).

A more holistic approach to rural development is needed. While the importance of agriculture for the future of rural areas is widely recognised, stakeholders also stressed the need for rural policies to address ?non-traditional? issues related to, for instance, service delivery, innovation and entrepreneurship, which are also important for ensuring a vibrant and resilient future for rural areas. Many stakeholders also pointed to the need for establishing a base level of infrastructure and services to support the functioning of the ?rural welfare state?.

A green transition to a low -carbon, circular economy offers m any opportunities for rural areas. The European Green Deal was seen as an essential step forward,but putting it into practice will require a major change in environmental awareness among all actors and finding better ways of valuing ecosystem services. Coordinated action is required at many levels to change attitudes and extend good practices.

The vision needs to be future-ready and build a stronger culture of social and technological innovation. Actions were suggested to ensure digital infrastructure is available, skills are developed, and local innovation and knowledge are supported in rural areas. Local hubs, advisory services in the wider rural domains and investing in new models for businesses and public services are outlined as key.

New regional and local territorial models supporting partnership and m ore open and resilient communities are needed. Stakeholders stressed the importance of rural?urban partnerships based on an equal footing. Similarly, improved rural-rural linkages, cooperation and partnership have also been suggested as ways to overcome issues of scale and lack of critical mass in rural areas. Brokers, animators and hubs could act as agents of change, boosting vertical coordination between local actors and those external to the territory, aligning bottom-up and top-down knowledge and capacities.

What should be done to achieve the vision?

Many of the actions recommended by stakeholders for realising the vision are framed in the short and medium terms rather than the longer term, and there is a general expectation that change should start now. The following are some of the key ideas and stakeholders? proposals discussed during the 3rd meeting of the ENRD Thematic Group and the Rural Vision Week:

Overarching goals that inspire action and change the narrative. The vision needs to contain a broad set of goals that provide a common direction and motivate rural actors. Objectives should be translated into measurable, operational and trackable targets and milestones. They should be part of a flexible, decentralised approach that empowers countries and rural communities to decide on the best way of responding to the diverse challenges and opportunities they face and provides the tools for them to do so.

Strategies, plans and programmes. The vision needs to be translated into some form of strategy (or agenda) and action plan at EU, national, regional and local levels. Some countries are already producing integrated rural strategies, such as Ireland?s rural development policy 2021-2025 (Our rural future) and the French Rural Agenda, which can inspire others.

Stocktaking, rural proofing, and tracking achievements. A ‘stocktaking’ exercise of plans and programmes approved at national and regional levels for the coming period was also suggested. There is also a need for a regular system for the ex-ante proofing of policies in rural territories and ex-post assessment of the achievements.

Clear governance and leadership. Many stakeholders pointed to the need for clear political leadership and high-level coordination to bring about change and ensure that action is taken. The level of political commitment and leadership given to the European Green Deal could serve as a model.

Better policy design, alignment , coordination and resources. There was reference to possible interdepartmental rural task forces in public authorities at all levels and involving stakeholders. The idea of ensuring the integration of rural concerns into the European Semester process also attracted interest.

Rural intelligence, data and capturing the differences. One idea suggested was for the creation of an EU Rural Think Tank or Observatory to collect data and improve knowledge about rural areas.

Building the capacity of local communities and creating the enabling conditions or helping them manage a green, digital and fair transition. Among others, suggestions included flexible, accessible, ring-fenced local budgets, less red tape, support for animation, knowledge advisory services, innovation hubs, skills, mentoring, targeted action for young people, basic infrastructure, and access to services and networking.

Enrique Nieto is Policy analyst at the ENRD

Rural areas: an eye to the future
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