The appeal of living in the countryside may have grown over the past few years, but many rural areas in the EU still battle with a number of problems that prevent people from staying or moving there
Despite the overall growth in employment and their improved image, rural areas – which account for 80% of the EU's territory and are home to 30% of its population - are still lagging behind cities and towns on many points.
Rural areas suffer from structural problems such as a lack of attractive employment opportunities, skills shortages, poor connectivity and underinvestment in digital and other infrastructure and in essential services. In the absence of sound policies and funding, at both EU and Member State levels, rural areas will continue to face a youth and brain drain.
The farming and food sectors remain crucial for the rural economy, together providing nearly 40 million jobs in the EU, with the CAP playing a positive role in reducing poverty and creating better jobs for farmers. However, there are many other opportunities for the development of rural areas, offered by the digital and green transitions and by increased telework and other work schemes, and rural areas have the potential to deliver more.
Creating jobs in renewable energy, the emerging bio-economy, the circular and silver economies and ecotourism does require investment in social and economic policies, but can bring growth and prosperity to rural areas, according to the hearing on The Labour Market in Rural Areas, held by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) on 15 September.
The hearing brought together EESC members, European Commission and ILO representatives, social partners and civil society organisations.
The event was opened by Laurenţiu Plosceanu, President of the EESC's Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship.
The agricultural sector is undergoing fundamental transformations as a result of trends affecting the entire economy and the labour market. Automation and digitalisation, and the transition towards a green economy, are certainly among the most relevant. In this context, farms are confronted with ongoing challenges, namely demographic change, skills transformations and working conditions. We need to work on the links between environmental, economic and social development, Mr Plosceanu said.
Marina Royo De Blas and Mátyás Szabó, from the European Commission's DG AGRI, presented the latest employment figures for the EU's rural areas, which showed the unemployment rate among young people to still be substantially higher in rural areas, standing at 13.4%.
The gender gap is also wider, with 67% of women in rural areas having a job, compared to 80% of men. The situation in Member States varies considerably, as in some countries rural areas have flourished while in others they have deteriorated in comparison to urban areas.
Demographic change, brain drain and depopulation are still plaguing rural areas. This can be due to various factors such as lower income levels and limited access to services, including healthcare, transport, logistics and personal connectivity. Being left behind and overlooked is a very general feeling, especially in remote rural areas, said Mr Szabó.
Ms Royo de Blas and Mr Szabó presented the latest Commission initiatives, aimed at revitalising rural areas through job creation, promotion of social inclusion, support for young people and improved connectivity. They include A long-term Vision for the EU's Rural Areas - Towards stronger, connected, resilient and prosperous rural areas by 2040, the Rural Action Plan and the Rural Pact. One important step introduced by the CAP is social conditionality, which will have to be implemented by Member States as of 1 January 2025.
Drew Gardiner, ILO Employment Policy Specialist, stressed the potential of rural areas in the future. One of the advantages of agricultural jobs, which are still the main source of employment in low-income areas, is that they are projected to have less risk of disappearing due to automation and are less susceptible to off-shoring. For example, whereas 68% of jobs in wholesale and retail could be displaced by automation, this risk exists for only 13% of jobs in agriculture.
Another unique trait is that although their unemployment rates have dropped to lower levels, rural areas still have a higher rate of time-related unemployment, which means that people work fewer hours than they would normally wish to.
Other speakers also stressed the need to seize the potential of sectors other than agriculture.
Marta Lozano Molano of the Spanish organisation WAZO COOP, pointed to the importance of the social valorisation of heritage and of the social and solidarity economy as ways of making rural areas more attractive for young families to settle down in. Nowadays, in the region of Extramadura in Spain, for example, four out of ten villages are at risk of disappearing.
Klaus Ehrlich, RURAL TOUR - European Federation of Rural Tourism, spoke about the need to tap into the potential of rural tourism in Europe. With 600 000 accommodation units and more than 6 million beds – which is twice the capacity of Spain, one of the major tourist destinations – rural areas account for 15% of hosting capacity in Europe. This generates an income of EUR 200 000 million in rural areas and creates more than one million indirect or direct jobs.
In Mr Ehrlich's view, tourism is just one of the industries that can prosper in rural areas. Jobs for the future, such as in the alternative energy industry and in environmental care, would also require investment. COVID-19 boosted the image of rural areas in terms of resilience. Improved connectivity and e-services have also brought in more workers.
However, demography remains a big problem, as young people are still leaving rural areas. "If you don’t have young people, there is nothing you can do; you can keep the population in the rural areas with subsidies, but this does not create dynamics", Mr Ehrlich said.
Marie-Christine Schönborn, President of Young Friends of the Countryside (YFCS), said more incentives are needed to encourage young people to move there. This included financial incentives, but also better connectivity and more education opportunities for children.
We need to change a lot in rural areas, business as usual cannot continue, said EESC member Florian Marin. Compared to the added value generated by the agricultural sector in the EU, income in rural areas remains twice as low as in towns and cities, with agricultural entrepreneurs earning twice as little as is the case in the rest of the economy.
He stressed the importance of attaching social conditionality to cohesion policy, which had to be taken into account.
Cohesion policy funds are used for several areas, but inequalities between rural and urban areas are there: we are obviously not doing something right, he warned, adding that more coordination was needed between the CAP and cohesion policy to ensure better complementarity and to deliver a proper framework for the development of rural areas.
For Juliana Wahlgren, director of the European Anti-Poverty Network, territorial cohesion was paramount and had to be brought into the heart of social inclusion strategies.
Rural areas are an acute space of deprivation that reflect the failing systems of social services and welfare states and it is really important to see poverty in a multidimensional approach. We have to understand the historical failures in distribution of resources and opportunities. When this inequality is addressed as a regional and spatial problem, we see this as a concern, because it's not only about geographical scope but it's also about the social inequalities that have been there since the beginning of time, Ms Wahlgren said.
The third panel offered the perspective of social partners.
Patricia Andriot, Vice-President of the French RTES (Social Economy Local Authority Network), explained how the social economy could be a pillar of rural labour markets.
Rural areas struggled with low population, a lack of essential services and poor networking. The social and solidarity economy (SSE) could make use of the numerous advantages of living in rural areas by offering many innovative solutions.
In France, there were some 161 900 jobs in the SSE and 22 510 rural SSE employers, of which 83% were microbusinesses. Some 50% of rural SSE jobs were in the social services sector, which included care work, domestic aid and day care.
Lena-Liisa Tengblad, CEO of the Swedish Federation of Green Employers, spoke about the difficulties of attracting workers to the agricultural sector, with more than 300 000 farms disappearing from Sweden over the last 70 years. The survey run by her organisation showed that young people did not know that agricultural jobs even existed.
Farmers themselves must take the responsibility of becoming good and attractive employers, but they also need public support from the government, Ms Tengblad maintained.
Ignacio Doreste, ETUC, singled out investments in creating employment opportunities, strengthening public employment services and promoting mobility as prerequisites for revitalising the rural economy. He feared that rising energy prices would create mobility poverty, negatively affecting low-income households.
Thomas Hentschel, European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions (EFFAT), highlighted the importance of ensuring that the views of people living in rural areas were heard.
Mr Hentschel spoke about the fact that people in rural areas did not have eloquent lobbies, because people from these areas who obtained higher education and qualifications tended to leave for urban areas.
Friedrich Trosse, SME United, stressed that social partners had to be involved in all strategies for rural areas.
This is fundamental. We must show rural areas that Europe is here to help; we must show on the ground that we are improving rural areas.
Concluding the event, LMO president Lech Pilawski said:
We need a comprehensive approach to rural areas, we cannot narrow it down to just one perspective and we must not forget about the social aspect. We have a vision: let's make sure it is implemented!