Important initiatives and policies are in place to successfully respond to the megatrends and challenges triggered by globalisation, urbanisation, ageing and depopulation in rural areas and to reap the benefits of the green and digital transitions. The most significant, the European Commission's 30 June Communication on a long-term vision for the EU's rural areas, makes it clear that the EU cannot afford asymmetric recovery from the pandemic crisis, whereby parts of Europe grow and other parts stagnate.
The Commission used participatory approach to formulate the vision for rural areas and used the results of a large public opinion survey on rural areas and an open consultation drawing on expectations from local authorities, stakeholders and citizens who live and do business in rural areas.
Com mission-supported research and innovation projects and the science - society - policy interfaces were also set up to ensure that the vision is evidence-based, and that innovation is a key component of it. In this respect ESPON contributed with a Policy Brief supporting intersectoral discussion on rural areas that critically assesses the current situation of EU rural areas.
The Commission concurs that a lack of progress in rural areas would indeed hold up the EU as a whole. Rural areas have considerable importance for the EU: they are home to 137 million people, representing 30 % of the European population and covering 83 % of the EU's territory. They are key to achieving the EU's sustainability goals, as they provide food, sustainable raw materials, water, biodiversity, carbon sinks, landscapes and travel, which all Europeans depend on.
"The vision is all about improving the overall territorial balance in Europe while countering negative demographic trends and strengthening the resilience of the EU as a whole"
That is why the vision acknowledges the urgent need to support structural transformation in rural areas through innovation based on smart specialisation, climate change adaptation, environmental protection, a low-carbon economy, digitalisation, improved competitiveness of SMEs, education, skills and employment, access to services and basic infrastructures, and social inclusion.
The vision also establishes that demographic decline, which is often associated with many rural areas, does not mean in all cases economic decline. Depopulation cannot be reversed, as the shrinking of the EU population is inevitable according to data projection analysis. However, depopulation can be managed in a smart way through adapting to new realities, mitigation and innovative measures so that it does not hurt the economy and quality of life in the areas concerned. Rural areas have assets that are not exploited and can be sources of new jobs reversing the brain drain. Hence, economic diversification is especially important, as agriculture is no longer the predominant activity of rural areas. New approaches are needed to develop industrial and service sectors with positive employment effects.
Overall, the vision aims to leave no place and no person behind while revitalising rural areas and rethinking patterns of development in line with the objectives of the European Green and Social Deals, the sectoral EU policies, NextGenerationEU, the Territorial Agenda 2030 and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The vision is all about improving the overall territorial balance in Europe while countering negative demographic trends and strengthening the resilience of the EU as a whole.
The "Long Term Vision for Ru ral Areas" provides an ambitious yet realistic and pragmatic idea of how Europe wants its rural areas to look in 2040, and how to reach this through a variety of methods and tools. The vision is cross-cutting and action by all levels of governance (EU, national, regional, local) is necessary to help rural areas address where there are than those that are far away from any functional urban area. Functional territorial development is key. Most importantly, stronger urban-rural interdependencies and linkages point to the anchoring and catchment roles that small and medium-sized cities play in preventing rural areas from shrinking. They drive attractiveness and development in rural areas. Hence, the Territorial Agenda 2030 pilot action on "Small places matter " is pivotal.
"The future of rural areas requires that the urban - rural links are enhanced and strengthened. Urban and rural areas cannot be opposed."
The vision also highlights the importance of rural proofing through territorial impact assessments so that new legislative measures or initiatives are screened for possible assymetrical territorial impacts. Together with ESPON and JRC, we worked to develop methodologies and models for territorial impact assessments that can analyse possible effects in different territories, including rural territories, which are now part of the updated Better Regulation process of the EU.
Finally, the vision states that Cohesion Policy is about much more than invest m ent s and financial assistance: it is an economic development tool that considers the specificities of all regions and territories and builds on their respective assets to overcom e constraints while incentivising multilevel partnerships and integrated place-based approaches. Shared management ensures that public investment decisions are taken as close as possible to citizens.
With its current budget of EUR 373 billion, the added value of post-2020 cohesion policy alongside the common agricultural policy is particularly high in mobilising funding for the accelerated green and digital transitions of rural areas to bring new infrastructures, businesses and employment opportunities.
In particular, the cross-cutting fifth policy objective "Europe closer to citizens" offers solutions at the level where citizens live, work and spend. Together with the territorial instruments available under all other four policy objectives, cohesion policy for 2021-2027 provides a flexible and enabling framework for Member St at es and regions to support better rural areas. development issues. EU policies can make a difference and thus the vision for rural areas encompasses all the dimensions and sectors.
Consequently, the vision favours territorial development strategies that are bottom-up, participatory, integrated and designed according to rural areas' characteristics and environments.
The future of rural areas requires that the urban ? rural links are enhanced and strengthened. Urban and rural areas cannot be opposed. They need each other to develop in a sustainable way. Ru ral areas that are close to cities very often tell a more positive story
Normunds Popens, Deputy Director-General , DG REGIO