The future of Europe will depend on how we deal with rural areas: more cooperation with urban areas for more sustainability, says the EESC

Europe's rural and urban territories are not developing evenly. It is critical to foster policies that curb this trend, ensure a fair and sustainable transition to a wellbeing economy in all areas and promote population rebalancing. In particular, rural areas, which play a critical role in economic and social cohesion, in regions' resilience, and in the contribution of countless services from various local ecosystems, including food production, should be made more attractive for young people and businesses. This would improve the quality of life and well-being of all EU citizens, allowing them to choose where they want to live and work. This was one of the most important conclusions drawn from the debate on "Towards a holistic strategy on sustainable rural and urban development", held by the NAT Section (Agriculture, Rural Development and the Environment) of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) on 8 March and involving a wide variety of stakeholders and policy-makers.

For years, the EESC has stressed the need to reduce the development gap between different territories. In a recent own-initiative opinion on "An integrated approach for the EU's rural areas, with particular emphasis on vulnerable regions" it has drawn attention to those regions currently threatened by stagnation, depopulation or desertification. It is therefore critical to deal with two equally severe forms of degradation: on the one hand, the excessive pressure on air, water and soil due to the concentration of economic activity in urban areas; on the other, the abandonment of large areas of territory, whose biological and landscape diversity declines irreparably.

As EESC NAT section president Peter Schmidt remarked: The post-Covid recovery offers the perfect opportunity to prepare strategies that ensure that no areas or their citizens are 'left behind' in the just transition to a climate-neutral, sustainable and prosperous European Union, in line with the objectives of the European Green and Social Deal, the Next Generation EU recovery package, the Territorial Agenda 2030 and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Civil society's contribution is crucial. Local civil society, workers and businesses actors as well as citizens need to be engaged to unlock the immense potential of rural/urban communities, and to co-design and foster their sustainable development.

The Territorial Agenda 2030 and balanced territorial development

The EU is extremely diverse from a territorial point of view and this is one of its strengths. But if we do not manage things properly, it can become a weakness. It is matter of urgency to implement policies that enable each area to reach its full potential. Territorial cohesion policies were created precisely to reduce the disparities in development between the regions and to make sure every region has access to public services, health care, accommodation, and work, leaving no one behind.

"The pandemic has deepened the gaps between the EU territories," argued Stefano Palmieri, president of the EESC's ECO Section (Economic and Monetary Union and Economic and Social Cohesion). Now that the EU has approved a courageous recovery package, with the new Multiannual Financial Framework, Next Generation EU and — within this plan the national recovery and resilience plans, these gaps have to be taken into account when allocating the funds. The Territorial Agenda must continue to focus on certain fundamental points: a Union of balance, where regions function properly, connecting urban and rural areas, and providing a dignified life to all its citizens.

Ulrika Landergren, chair of the Committee of the Regions' NAT Commission, backed up this idea, saying that leaving rural areas behind had never been an option and the pandemic had demonstrated that it was even less of an option today: The COVID crisis has revealed the underlying fragility of Europe’s large metropolitan areas and of the missing territorial ties with their rural neighbourhoods. A long-term rural and urban vision for Europe must create new structures for closer cooperation. We also need to ensure a fair distribution of the Recovery Plan funds between urban and rural areas.

A bottom-up approach to rural and urban development is essential to meet the real needs of communities

Local, municipal and regional initiatives should be at the heart of all rural and urban development policies. The EESC has always championed a bottom-up approach and the empowerment of communities to come up with the right answers for themselves. This is an approach strongly supported by Meera Ghani, policy coordinator at Ecolise (European network for community-led initiatives on climate change and sustainability), who pointed out that: Citizens, groups and local communities understand their needs, within their context, better than anyone else. Hence any solution that’s viable and sustainable will have to come directly from them, whether these are communities within a rural setting or the urban environment. While we all face the same challenges, our local context is different and unique. It is a holistic yet intersectional approach that will help us get to the regenerative cultures we dream of. For his part, Staffan Nilsson, President of the European Rural Community Alliance and member of the Steering Group of the European Rural Parliament, noted: "There is engagement on local level, everywhere, and we should take advantage of it!"

Ms Ghani also pointed out that another difficult obstacle was related to funding projects. The way the financial instruments work inside the EU leads to a fragmented approach and a lack of coherence on how the funds are being spent: That is why we have been calling for a Single Development Fund when it comes to sustainability and climate action at local level, where urban and rural areas can address all common challenges, such as the climate breakdown, the lack of investments, inequity, lack of access to services, to employment, to health care and accommodation.

Christian Jonet, coordinator of the non-profit organisation "Ceinture Aliment-Terre Liégeoise" (CATL), also pointed out that there was currently no support for schemes linking urban and rural areas and connecting local and regional bodies. As he explained: In terms of collective projects in the field of sustainable food, the creation of alliances between committed citizens, cooperative businesses and public authorities is, based on the experience of CATL, an extremely powerful way to set in motion a dynamic of transition.

Complementarity, cooperation and commitment were also central in the message of Rosa Gallardo Cobos, director of the Department of Economics, Sociology and Agricultural Policy at the University of Cordoba, who highlighted the fact that: The sustainability (economic, social and environmental) of European territories, rural and urban, will be based on the complementarity between both areas and will require integral policies, with a holistic vision, that promote cooperation and commitment between the different social and economic actors present in them.

How can the EU institutions contribute in practical terms to a comprehensive approach to rural and urban areas?

25 years after the Cork declaration of 1996 (the European Conference on Rural Development), when civil society drew attention to the problems of rural areas, most of the concerns remain the same and so it is now critical to make "a better life in rural areas" a reality. Deša Srsen, a member of the private office of Dubravka Šuica, vice-president for Democracy and Demography at the European Commission, explained how the Commission was committed to proposing a number of measures: With the Long Term Rural Vision the Commission is preparing for adoption in June, our ambition is to create a new momentum for rural areas and make them attractive to young people, businesses and innovative entrepreneurs, as well as empowered by the green and digital transitions. It will give citizens living and doing business in rural areas a stronger voice and make sure they are not left behind in the process.

For Niklas Nienass, MEP, co-chair of the RUMRA & Smart Villages Intergroup, the changes were going too slow and the European Commission should take action to fix the problems within the next 5 years: Good infrastructures and connectivity in rural areas are needed to attract people form urban areas, but movers into rural areas should consider moving into a living village with its existing culture and not just into a house, integrating and building a community.

In his concluding remarks, Josep Puxeu Rocamora, vice-president of the EESC's NAT Section and rapporteur of the opinion NAT/790, emphasised that the integration of rural and vulnerable areas was very complex, because it touched upon every single existing EU policy (employment, access to services, transport, digitalisation, etc.). To develop these areas, we propose a 'territorial contract' between urban society and the rural world which should be participatory, adapted to the characteristics of the territories and preserving their historical, cultural and natural heritage. The EESC would further develop a holistic approach towards sustainable urban and rural development in collaboration with all stakeholders and actively contribute to the long-term vision the Commission is preparing, including the events planned during its Rural Vision Week on n 22-26 of March.