More than 140 rural development stakeholders gathered on November 27, 2020, in the online conference “A European Rural Agenda is urgently needed for rural areas after COVID crisis”. Co-organised by the RUMRA & Smart Villages intergroup of the European Parliament and the European Committee of the Regions (CoR), with the support of Euromontana and Rurality – Environment – Development (RED), this event aimed at identifying the lessons learned by rural areas during the COVID-19 crisis and how the new Long-Term Vision for Rural Areas should be translated into a concrete policy framework – the European Rural Agenda.
The event was open by MEP Bogovic, co-chair of the intergroup, who stressed the fact that the COVID-19 crisis has more than ever raised awareness on the need for a European Rural Agenda. Commissioner Šuica shared this observation and reiterated her wish for a Long-Term Vision to be developed together with rural actors and which would really enable rural territories to unlock their full potential thanks to the digital and green transitions. She reaffirmed her ambition to make the Long-Term Vision for Rural Areas a real toolbox, and not just a narrative abstract, with concrete measures to ensure attractive and vibrant rural areas. The Commissioner also stressed the extreme diversity of rural territories in Europe, which needs to be considered in the Vision. The Commission’s communication will be presented in June 2021 and, until them, Mrs Šuica invited rural stakeholders to participate in the workshops which will be organised to collect feedback. (See also Commissioner Šuica’s statement during her meeting with the RUMRA & Smart Villages intergroup on November 19, 2020.)
Experiences and lessons learned by rural areas during the COVID-19 crisis
Marie Clotteau, Director of Euromontana, moderated a first panel during which speakers exchanged on rural experiences in COVID times and on how they have strengthened their resilience. She called for an ambitious Vision for Rural Areas to create at EU level the enabling conditions for vibrant, attractive, and resilient rural and mountainous areas.
Jose Enrique Garcilazo, Head of Regional and Rural Policy Unit at the OECD, agreed on the need to increase the quality of life of rural populations, in light of the recent OECD report “Rural well-being: geography of opportunities” (October 2020). Since the outbreak of the COVID-19, differences between rural and urbans areas became more visible with, for instance, more jobs amenable to remote working in cities as well as better connectivity and more developed digital skills in urban than rural areas. To address these issues, Mr Garcilazo advocated for integrated and placed-based strategies concretely addressing the needs of citizens by taking into consideration the opportunities and challenges in each rural areas (e.g. the OECD’s report differentiates rural areas belonging to a city’s functional area to those having access to a city’s functional area to remote areas – for each of them, daily problems and possible solutions differ).
Paul Soto, from ENRD (European Network of Rural Development), introduced the collection of good practices collected since the first COVID-19’s wave in March 2020. Some of these practices are inspiring initiatives to cope with the crisis on the short-term while others exemplify mid to long-term adaptation measures in a rural context. He also stressed the importance of the Smart Villages concept to boost the attractiveness of rural areas. With a great transferability potential to local contexts, the Smart Villages approach, combining digital and social innovations, can address challenges such as declining job opportunities, depopulation, environmental issues, inadequate services etc. Other examples of rural resilience were introduced by Gianluca Lentini, from Poliedra – Polytechnic of Milan and the Interreg Alpine Space project Smart Villages. He underlined that the lockdown boosted creativity and entrepreneurship in rural areas. Alpine Fab Labs for example started to produce face protections and various mobile applications were launched to encourage solidarity and support local value chains. Gianluca Lentini therefore concluded that mountainous areas are innovative and can become smarter places to live in thanks to the rural mindset and the support of digital technologies.
The European Committee of the Regions will also provide feedback on the resilience of rural areas. Joke Schauvliege, CoR member, is indeed preparing as rapporteur an opinion on the experiences and lessons learned by rural areas during the COVID-19 crisis. In this outlook opinion, she intends to gather evidence from regions and to assess some of the measures launched at EU level. Due to the cross-sectoral approach of this opinion, the document will be discussed in all commissions of the CoR and is planned to be adopted during the May 2021 plenary session.
A new Long-Term Vision for Rural Areas
A second panel, moderated by Gérard Peltre, President of RED, discussed the opportunities offered by the new EU Long-Term Vision for Rural Areas. Enda Stenson, rapporteur for the CoR opinion on the EU strategy for a Rural Revival, alerted on the lack of funds available for rural areas in the next programming period. He stressed the fact that the recovery package is mainly addressing the needs of urban areas, especially in terms of infrastructure. Rapporteur Stenson therefore called the European Commission to make of its Long-Term Vision for Rural Areas a real Rural Agenda which could concretely help to achieve territorial cohesion.
Joël Giraud, Secretary of State for Rural Affairs in France, shared his hopes for such a Vision. According to him, there is a “rural trend” and people are more and more aware of the needs of rural areas. This is why France adopted a national Rural Agenda in September 2019, which includes 173 measures aiming at revitalizing the country’s rural regions (see our article). With the emergence of environmental and climate issues, Joël Giraud also stressed the fact that the EU Long-Term Vision for Rural Areas should not only be a matter of taking rural populations into consideration but also to reflect on the contributions that rural territories can make to global challenges.
Another inspiring example was shared by Carme Ferrer, Vice-Chair of the Association of Microvillages of Catalunya and Mayor of Senan. The region already developed different strategies to revitalize its rural areas, like the ODISSEU programme for rural internships and actions under LEADER. The region of Catalunya, member of Euromontana, wants to go further and is currently working to build a regional Rural Agenda with rural organisations. The establishment of this regional Rural Agenda was voted by the regional committee for depopulation in September 2020. A drafting committee, composed of rural associations, has been created and will consult the civil society before submitting its proposals to regional authorities. This bottom-up process is expected to result in an agreement before the next summer so that measures can concretely start to be implemented from July 2021.
Rural stakeholders participating in the conference were given the opportunity to share their views regarding the EU Commission’s Long-Term Vision for Rural Areas. Melina Hanhart, Representative of the European Rural Youth Parliament, raised awareness on the need to include the rural youth in this process. Young generations are barely considered in by policymakers, she explained, or only on sport-related issues although they also have their say on services, education, transport or sustainable production. Georges Alexakis, Vice-President of Euromontana and Vice-Governor of the region of Crete, also stressed the importance of placed-based approaches, taking into consideration the specificities of mountain areas and their innovation potential.
Ulrika Landergrenn, Chair of the CoR’s NAT Commission closed the event by urging the EU Commission to adopt a European Rural Agenda capable of tackling depopulation, reinforcing territorial cohesion, including the youth and taking into consideration the areas with natural constraints, as already requested by the European Parliament. MEP Clara Aguilera, co-chair of the RUMRA & Smart Villages intergroup, also concluded by calling for a Long-Term Vision addressing the current environmental challenges and proposing sustainable development patterns for rural territories.
3 December 2020