The EESC is calling on policy-makers to implement a comprehensive and holistic strategy for balanced, cohesive, equitable and sustainable rural and urban development. This will involve harnessing the role of local communities, boosting traditional industries and creating new economic activities and job opportunities in rural areas, while fostering synergies with urban areas. The opinion adopted on this topic will contribute to the implementation of the Commission's long-term vision for the EU's rural areas put forward last June.
Welcoming the European Commissioner for Agriculture, Janusz Wojciechowski, to the EESC plenary session on 21 October, EESC President Christa Schweng said that the EESC had been stressing for years the need to reduce the development gap between rural and urban areas.
"We need to ensure that no areas or citizens are left behind in the just transition to a climate-neutral, sustainable and prosperous European Union," said Ms Schweng. "As demonstrated during the COVID-19 crisis, EU rural areas play a critical role in providing economic stability through delivering crucial services such as food production. Nevertheless, they are still lagging behind and have featured less and less on the political agenda compared to towns and cities."
Given this vital role they play, the EESC emphasises the urgent need to act now and implement a paradigm shift for rural areas, bearing in mind that they represent almost 30% of the EU's population and over 80% of its territory.
Mr Wojciechowski stressed that: "With the Long-term Vision, the European Commission is attempting to enable political decisions that take a long-term view of challenges and opportunities that take into account the wide complexity of European rural areas and that take on board the full range of views and voices within rural communities. That is why the participation of the European Economic and Social Committee, and the wide range of voices you represent, is so important. If we share this Vision, and share the work required to bring it to reality, I believe that we can look forward to success."
Levelling the playing field between rural communities and the urban environment
The challenges faced by rural areas (such as demographic change, depopulation, the digital divide, low incomes, limited access to certain services, the need for better employment prospects and specific impacts of climate change) can only be addressed from a holistic and renewed place-based perspective that seeks out a reciprocal as well as complementary rural/urban relationship for development.
The EESC opinion on the topic: Towards a holistic strategy on sustainable rural/urban development makes several recommendations, based on multi-stakeholder involvement and a "bottom-up" approach, which are key ingredients for ensuring sustainability and local ownership of rural policies.
Piroska Kállay, co-rapporteur for this opinion stressed that: The supply of jobs, training and housing should reflect and harness rural natural resources, while also creating innovative business opportunities. Promoting decent work and improving working conditions in rural areas is essential. Everyone involved should have a say in this improvement process, for example through rural parliaments: we must ensure participatory democracy!
Cross-cutting coordination and tailored policies are crucial
All policies in this area must be consistent with and complementary to European strategies such as the European Green Deal, and the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity Strategies, as well as the New Industrial Strategy, which points to the agri-food sector as one of the key strategic ecosystems in the EU. Experimenting with new forms of urban-rural cooperation is not only a prerequisite but also an opportunity for a just transition and territorially balanced sustainable development.
It is essential to move towards an integrated approach to action and funding in the different policies that have an impact on rural areas, with the objective of achieving well-being and quality of life for citizens, pointed out rapporteur Josep Puxeu Rocamora. A sufficient supply of good-quality services, housing, energy, leisure, education and training, lifelong learning and healthcare systems is also necessary to ensure that rural areas are not only sustainable but also attractive places to live. The quality of life in the rural world will be measured by the increase in the number of young people and new initiatives that provide quality, well-paid jobs, he concluded.