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A new narrative for the EU's rural areas

On 30 June, the European Commission adopted a Communication on the Long-term vision for the EU's rural areas.

Rural areas form a core part of the European way of life. They are home to 137 million people, almost 30 % of the EU's population, and cover 80 % of its territory. These rural areas are also diverse. Variations in natural and climatic conditions, geographic features, historic and cultural developments, and distances from urban centres (remoteness) mean that no two rural areas are alike.

However, rural areas share a number of similar challenges and opportunities. Population loss, ageing, degrading infrastructure, low levels of education and training, and a lack of jobs and business opportunities affect many rural areas, especially those that are remote. However, sustainable agriculture, food production and bioeconomy, remote working, service provision and an attractive living environment are among the opportunities to capitalise on for better rural futures.

To contribute to tackling the above mentioned issues, the European Commission proposed to set a vision for these areas and pathways. The preparation of t his vision was based on three pillars, starting with a far-reaching public consultation. By mobilising over 4.000 participants through different activities, this participatory process provided insight into the specific needs of citizens on the ground. The public consultation was then complemented by an extensive analysis of the trends and challenges faced by rural areas, as well as the opportunities from which they can benefit. This data-driven analysis included insights into the influence that the green and digital transitions would have on rural areas. Finally, a foresight component ensured that the vision was designed with future challenges in mind.

The communication setting out this vision aims to make rural areas stronger, more connected, more resilient and more prosperous by 2040. It also reflects a need to change the narrative around rural areas, which strongly emerged from consultations. The COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences have, to some extent, contributed to giving new life to rural areas. This newfound momentum should be used to the benefit of rural areas. While proposing concrete actions at EU level, the vision recognises the specificities of different rural areas and promotes the development of 'place-based' solutions.

"Rural areas form a core part of the European way of life. They are home to 137 million people, almost 30 % of the EU's population, and cover 80 % of its territory"

An action plan, including initiatives building towards the vision's goals, will initiate the work towards reaching the objectives of the vision. The action plan recognises the need to mobilise and coordinate all relevant EU policies. The CAP and Cohesion policy have key roles to play in the development of rural areas, but many other policies are essential to supporting rural society and the rural economy. A rural proofing mechanism, introduced by the communication, will seek to ensure that the needs of rural areas are systematically considered in all major European Commission initiatives.

Making the vision a success will require the engagement of not only European policies, but also national, regional and local initiatives to deepen their cooperation. The Rural Pact is an initiative to bring all levels of governance and stakeholders together to work on a common set of objectives. A rural observatory will also be created, aiming to continue gathering precise and up-to-date data on rural areas. Finally, a handbook on maximising EU funding opportunities as well as a rural revitalisation platform, a one-stop shop on existing projects for rural communities, project stakeholders and authorities, are planned.

"making the vision a success will require the engagement of not only European policies, but also national, regional and local initiatives to deepen their cooperation."

The European Commission will support and monitor the implementation of the action plan and regularly update it to ensure that it remains relevant. By mid 2023, the European Commission will take stock of EU and Member St at e actions carried out in rural areas. In 2024, a public report based on the action plan will identify areas where enhanced support and finances are needed and where changes should be introduced. However, it is clear that the vision can be successful only if an open dialogue with Member St at es and rural stakeholders, and their participation in the different initiatives, is ensured. The European Commission will continue to act as a go-between, maintaining communication lines and bringing attention to rural areas. In this respect, the vision and its implementation will also contribute to the work of the Conference on the Future of Europe.

Far from being a conclusion, the long-term vision for the EU's rural areas is only the beginning of a lengthy process building towards 2040. As societies evolve and the real value of rural areas is brought into sharper focus, Europe stands to benefit greatly from the diversity of its rural areas. Developing synergies with urban and intermediate areas will also be a core component in bridging the gaps and making sure that the green and digital transitions reach all parts of Europe, even the most remote areas.

This article appears in the EURegionsWeek 2021 Issue of TerritoriALL

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This article appears in the EURegionsWeek 2021 Issue of TerritoriALL