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Discussion at the European Parliament on how to revert brain drain in rural areas and mountains

On 21st June, Euromontana organised an event at the European Parliament to discuss about strategies and recommendations to counter brain drain in rural and mountainous areas. During the event, the Cohesion Policy funds were evoked as an opportunity to lower youth outmigration, as well as other inspiring practices.

The lack of diversified and qualified jobs is driving brain drain in mountain areas

Many mountain areas in Europe are experiencing a demographic decline due to a lack of attractiveness. In these areas, ageing, youth outmigration, brain drain and sometimes depopulation led to a vicious circle of further loss of attractiveness and services. The 2022 Euromontana report “Being young in a mountain area” and other recent national or regional studies on mountain population flows demonstrate that youth want to stay in mountain areas, but struggle to find employment opportunities that fit they academic background. In fact, the lack of economic diversification and the lack of qualified positions are the main drivers of brain drain in mountain territories.

Finding ways to tackle brain drain in Europe 

In the framework of the European Year of Youth, the European Commission is currently working on a Communication on brain drain and how to mitigate challenges associated with population decline  using the tools and funds from the Cohesion Policy. Stakeholders and individuals have been asked to present their inputs and good practices via a public consultation. Euromontana have provided insights on demographic challenges in mountain areas and its recommendations. These inputs will be used to build up the Communication by the European Commission. To further reflect on strategies, tools and funds to counter brain drain in rural and mountainous areas, Euromontana organised a breakfast event at the European Parliament on 21st June 2021. The event was held in collaboration with the Intergroup RUMRA & Smart Villages, and it was hosted by the Member of the European Parliament Hannes Heide.

Main highlights of the discussion

“Europe is decided in the rural areas. Brexit is an example of that, and we should listen more to rural people” said Hannes Heide, Member of the European Parliament. He particularly insisted on the role of culture as an engine for sustainable regional development for rural areas. The Member of the European Parliament Hannes Heide is originally from Hallstatt, Austria, a village from the the Salzkammergut region. The area is the first inner-Alpine region to hold the title of European Capital of Culture for 2024. In Hallstatt and 24 other mountainous municipalities of this region, the European Capital of Culture will be the opportunity to promote the traditions of the territory but also to reflect on mobility, services, sustainable tourism, and socio-cultural offer for local communities and not only for tourists, highlighted Mr Heide. “The main take home message from today’s event is that 66% of young people want to stay in the mountains” welcomed the MEP before encouraging all stakeholders to work towards better quality of life and stronger attractiveness for mountain regions.

Then, Vesna Caminades, from the Autonomous Region of South Tyrol-Bolzano’s Liaison office in Brussels, presented how their region is trying to attract youth for instance by investing on mobility and increasing the awareness on funding opportunities. She presented a study conducted by the Chamber of Commerce, lndustry, Crafts and Agriculture of Bolzano “Brain drain – brain gain: how attractive is South Tyrol’s labour market?”. The study showed that South Tyrol is overall attractive but that immigrants do not stay for long. In fact, more than 50% of workers leaving the region say that the lack of employment opportunities corresponding to their academic background was the main reason pushing them to leave. Additionally, the high costs of living, a closed mentality, and multilingualism (especially in the valleys surrounding Bolzano where people often speak dialect) are other factors that are discouraging people to settle down for a longer period in the area. Moreover, it is worth mentioning that during the last years, South Tyrol has seen an increase in people coming from countries outside the EU. Often these people have a low level of education and no knowledge of Italian or German.

To incentivise young people to stay, South-Tyrol has to diversify the job offer. Not only agriculture, but also cross-border healthcare, high performing agriculture and engineering. To do so, the new EU Bauhaus of the mountain may help. The EU Bauhaus involves EU research academy EURAC, free University of Bolzano and the Clima house agency (working with renewable energy in the building sector) and administration is strategic. Seven working groups were created (for example, sustainability and affordable housing, creative industries, circular design, digital transformation, environment, education and art design). Vesna Caminades highlighted how ”the Bauhaus strategy is not only focused on architecture but it should also be perceived as a way of life. Since brain drain also depends on how people perceive life and the environment, the Bauhaus strategy may represent an opportunity for different stakeholders (students, young families) to find themselves living in a stable way in South Tyrol”.

Blandine Camus, Communication and Policy Officer at Euromontana, presented the activities carried out in the framework of Montana174. In particular, she presented some of the examples from the project’s brochures on youth and employment as inspiring examples of initiatives that can help to reverse brain drain. Blandine Camus also insisted on the fact that funds are available to cope with brain drain in the current programming period. The objectives for “Europe closer to citizens” “Greener Europe” and “More social Europe” can in particular help to build locally led strategies for attractiveness, to develop and structure new promising sectors in the mountains creating qualified jobs in the circular or bioeconomy and to provide more educational opportunities in our regions, preventing young people from migrating to urban areas to study. Euromontana invited participants to read Montana174’s factsheets to get more information on the funds available through the 2021-2027 Cohesion Policy.

Euromontana also welcomed the European Commission’s intention to limit brain drain using the Cohesion Policy. Yet, Blandine Camus warned that strategies against brain drain should move beyond the Smart specialisation strategies. Although some have proven to be beneficial for mountain regions, many of these strategies are often solely focused on traditional sectors – like the agri-food production and tourism- and mainly fail to engage with actors from most remote areas. Among other recommendations, Euromontana called regions to use the Cohesion Policy funds to diversify their local economy, support rural entrepreneurship through specific support schemes, build territorial attractiveness strategies to attract back young graduates and families.

Guillaume Corradino, Director of Euromontana, closed the event by inviting participants to join Montana174’s final conference in Brussels on 20 September 2022 to know more on how to foster the effective uptake of Cohesion Policy funds in mountain areas.

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