We need to halt the growing gaps between rural and urban areas and better coordinate policies to bridge them. The new CAP alone will not be sufficient to rebalance these interrelated areas. For Europe to truly tackle inequalities, we need to put in place a wider set of policies and financing instruments.
In an Information Report adopted at its April plenary, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) provided a complementary evaluation at the request of the Commission on the extent to which the instruments and measures of the current EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) 2014-2020 have contributed to balanced territorial development in rural areas, focussing in particular on the socio-economic aspects.
While positive effects of the CAP funding on rural development were recognised, from fighting depopulation to diversifying the economy of rural areas and creating new governance mechanisms, the CAP measures were not sufficient to meet the wide range of economic, environmental and societal challenges faced by rural areas, including employment. A holistic approach to rural development is needed and the CAP must be linked with other existing policies to meet all the challenges that rural areas face.
Based on consultations with civil society organisations, as well as public authorities in five selected EU countries (France, Hungary, Ireland, Italy and Spain) and on past EESC opinions, in particular the opinion on An integrated approach for the EU's vulnerable areas, the EESC analysed the CAP's contribution to reducing social and economic imbalances within rural areas, and between rural and surrounding (i.e. urban) areas. In this process, it explored the most sensitive aspects of social inclusion, such as demographic change, vulnerable populations and regions and access to services.
Drastic demographic change and the depopulation of rural areas
Over the past few decades, many EU Member States have experienced an increasing trend towards population concentration, with movement from rural and agricultural regions to large cities and suburbs.
According to Eurostat data from 2018, 70.9% of the population live in cities, towns and suburbs, and only 29.1% live in rural areas.
Agriculture obviously has a role to play in demographic trends, as it is often the cornerstone of the local economy and facilitates the development of other sectors such as the agri-food industry and tourism. As agriculture has become a less attractive profession, one of the consequences is land abandonment, with its dramatic results for the loss of landscapes and environmental services that actively manage the land.
Agricultural and forestry activity helps to maintain the population, combat erosion, reduce the frequency and spread of fires and prevent desertification.
It is therefore critical to rethink the whole strategy of balanced territorial development so that people, especially younger people, are attracted to the farming profession, thus revitalising the rural world and fostering generational renewal, notes EESC rapporteur Piroska Kállay, who adds that
The immense contribution of rural women to agricultural and non-agricultural economic activities must also be properly recognised, for example, through access to co-ownership of farms, increasing the occupancy rate. As for any other European policy, equal opportunities must be an essential part of the CAP.
Access to services of general interest (SGIs) – a key strategy for bringing people back to rural areas
It is of the utmost importance to make life in rural areas attractive, with access to essential education, childcare facilities, health, transport, cultural and other services, as well as digitalisation (broadband) and related processes that will help develop new work and business opportunities ("smart villages").
25 years after the 1996 Cork Declaration (the European Conference on Rural Development), in which civil society drew attention to the problems of rural areas, most of the concerns remain the same and it is now critical to make "a better life in rural areas" a reality.
The EESC looks forward to the adoption in June of the Commission's Long Term Rural Vision as a fundamental step to create a new momentum for rural areas and make them attractive to young people, businesses and innovative entrepreneurs, empowered by the green and digital transitions.
Lack of coherence between EU policies
While the CAP is the key policy for funding and maintaining employment in agriculture, other existing funding programmes, complementary to the CAP, also have a critical role to play. However, coherence with other EU/national/local policies was evaluated as less than optimal when it comes to social policies, food policies, environmental policies, research and innovation and trade. Environmental, economic and social sustainability must go hand in hand.
A holistic approach to rural development is urgent, ensuring the CAP's consistency and complementarity with overarching policy frameworks such as Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The CAP must consequently be intrinsically linked with all other existing policies to ensure sufficient support is given to rural areas to meet the wide range of economic, environmental and societal challenges. These challenges include: decent work conditions, mobility, training, social inclusion, funds and plans (the European Green Deal, the Farm to Fork Strategy, the Biodiversity Strategy, NextGenerationEurope, and the upcoming New Industrial Strategy).
The Recovery and Resilience Facility funds (part of NextGenerationEU) need to be well designed to have a real impact in rural areas. It is also of crucial importance that the national recovery and resilience plans include the rural perspective.
Recommendations for the future CAP
LEADER and Community-led local development (CLLD) were found to be potentially the most effective of all CAP measures, diversifying the economy of rural areas, creating new governance mechanisms, preserving historical and cultural heritage and supporting entrepreneurship. However, such measures need to be given much greater resources and be better utilised.
Involving civil society organisations is key to ensuring the smooth operation of the programmes, and to making sure that local needs are duly considered, points out Ms Piroska Kállay.
Social farming was also evaluated as being an effective measure of the 2014-2020 CAP, playing an important role in particular in people's well-being and care, with agri-tourism and educational farms attracting the urban population, which should be further supported.
The CAP measures do not affect employment in rural areas as positively as most countries needed. In fact, while CAP subsidies are particularly conditional on respect for basic environmental standards, public health and animal welfare, compliance with human and labour rights is not considered at all.This is why the CAP has failed to improve agricultural workers' conditions. In the countries that were visited, several stakeholders strongly highlighted the importance of social conditionality.
Labour rights and decent working conditions must therefore be guaranteed by social conditionality in CAP financing, concludes Ms Kállay.
A Rural Development Observatory should also be established to make it possible to discern the real intrinsic trends in purely rural economies as distinct from the urban centres to which they are connected. This is essential to study the internal dynamics of these areas, to ensure that policies are based on a fully comprehensive understanding of the situation.
The CAP should support initiatives aimed at organising the upstream part of the supply chain, represented by producers' organisations, which not only give farmers more bargaining power, inter alia, to improve selling prices, but also offer enormous employment potential through a huge range of activities and services. Cooperatives play an important role here.
At a time of paradigm shifts (the uncertain climate, increasing prevalence of epidemics, teleworking, digitalisation, new technologies and solutions), the CAP, in close collaboration with other policies, must continue to support farmers and the development of rural areas, while supporting the necessary changes and the adaptation of the agri-food sector and the whole rural economy to this new reality.
Next steps at the EESC
The EESC will build on this opinion and on its previous work to draw up a holistic, forward-looking approach to sustainable rural/urban development in the EU. An online hearing will be held with the European Rural Parliament (ERP) on 18 June 2021 (9.30 a.m. – 1 p.m.) to explore opportunities to achieve sustainability and prosperity through new ways of cooperation between rural and urban areas.