How to “reconnect” rural areas, the European Commission’s observations are good, but the proposed solutions have to be discussed

Fotol: Roomet Sõrmus

Today the European Commission is releasing a long-awaited communication, “A long-term Vision for the EU’s Rural Areas”. This communication is interesting in several respects and deserves to be commented on, particularly through a farmer’s perspective.

This communication is divided into two parts, firstly on the current situation and secondly on the actions to be taken. I think that the two parts deserve a different comment, although we can agree on the observation, the objectives put forward by the Commission must be specified. 

On the observation, I can only agree with the analysis presented. There is a growing understanding that the role and importance of rural areas is under-appreciated and insufficiently rewarded. This is clearly demonstrated by the insightful study conducted by Eurostat that accompanies the release of this Communication.  Almost 40% of those who replied to the public consultation said they felt left behind by society and policymakers. Reading this study, one realizes that this feeling of political disconnection from rurality is also accompanied by a physical disconnection. In 16 of the 27 EU Member States, the problem of access to transport and infrastructures appears to be the number one problem for rural communities. This is well ahead of the issues of digitalisation for instance. The other findings are well known by the farming community: rural areas are experiencing a demographic shock with an older population that is also seeing more young women leaving rural areas.  

However, I also agree with the Commission’s nuanced view that rural areas are grounds for opportunity now and in the future.. With the green deal, the development of the bioeconomy or the potential of the carbon markets, we have resources that can be mobilised and would deserve more media attention. As mentioned in the report, farmers, forest owners and agricultural cooperatives are the backbone of vibrant rural regions and also of the economy in many EU Member States. Behind each farm there are a dozen of indirect jobs that are maintained locally.

I am convinced that the transition of post-covid Europe will have to take place through these rural areas and as the Commission’s President Ursula von der Leyen said, “Europe would not be whole without its countryside”. This was true yesterday; it should be confirmed tomorrow.

If I can agree with the observations, as a rural citizen myself, I want to discuss the second part of the communication on concrete solutions. In an effort to summarize its approach, the Commission has tried to group them under 4 pillars, and two flagship policies (i.e., EU Rural Pact and EU Rural Action Plan) but the measures mentioned, and their effects are much more numerous and complex. At Copa and Cogeca we have already made proposals in view of this communication, so I will only mention a few principles here that I consider essential.

In the Communication, agriculture is painted as an opportunity in rural areas while underlining some areas of action. Farmers need to be supported in this transition and this must be backed by an impact assessment of the consequences of the required change. Such a study we are still waiting for on the farm-to-fork strategy for example. The proposal to put in place a rural proofing mechanism, as recommended in the Cork 2.0 Declaration to assess the anticipated impact of major EU legislative initiatives on rural areas is an interesting novelty.

To make sure that farmers, agricultural cooperatives, and forest owners are at the heart of this vision, there is a need for their active involvement in the debate and a bottom-up approach. The COVID crisis and the multiplications of debates, prevents this voice from rural areas from being heard in a more constructive manner. We expect concrete proposals in this area as there is a strong need to make the voice of rurality heard at all levels of political decision-making.

Rural areas are diverse, it is a fact. It is therefore important to avoid ‘one size fits all’ approaches given the differences within the EU, allowing for various paces of adaptation and ensuring a level playing field for everyone. I would prefer the EU to follow the principle of the three S’s: Sustainable, Smart and Simpler EU and national policies.

It is also important that agricultural and forestry land is protected in urban spatial planning and infrastructure measures, protecting it from urban sprawl, especially since this land is an important habitat for insects, bees, birds, and wild plants. We would have expected a better focus in the Communication on the importance of rural areas in ensuring food security through the delivery of sufficient, stable high-quality food. A key lesson of COVID being that food supply chains remain a key element of Europe’s open strategic autonomy.

The Communication refers to European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development as the key source of EU funding for rural areas while the needs and contributions of the agricultural sector as an integral part of rural areas are referred to only scarcely. The public goods and services that are provided by the agriculture and forestry sector and that offer society recreational, cultural and health benefits are still not adequately accounted for. Investment measures to improve the overall performance and sustainability of agricultural and forestry holdings are and should remain the core of the rural development policy, being essential for the performant agricultural cooperatives. This is even more relevant in the context of the European Recovery Plan. Promoting this as part of the Rural Action Plan is key for its success. Synergies between European Structural Funds, Invest EU and Union’s Recovery Programme are needed, as also highlighted in the Communication, to improve investments into digital infrastructure while not leaving the agricultural sector behind. We welcome the proposed toolkit on access to and optimal combination of EU funding opportunities for rural areas from the current budget, given that mobilising all financial opportunities is crucial for the success of the initiatives.

Demographic is a central challenge. The future EU Rural Action Plan needs to integrate support for young people in a way that would encourage them to want to live and work in rural areas. This would also imply their integration in the policy mix, from housing, social security, and education. From an agricultural perspective, this relates to sufficient family income, access to training, a standard of living and social status that equal any other professional groups. A major problem young farmers are facing is access to land and access to capital/credit. There is a need to create new incentives for older farmers to hand over their farms. It is thus imperative that the support for rural action goes beyond CAP. I am also glad to see that the Commission is taking the gender issue into account. I think this is a key issue, we need more women farmers in our territories.

EU policies, EU Rural Pact and EU Rural Action Plan need to ensure that rural areas remain attractive places to live and work in by improving access to basic services including healthcare and fostering entrepreneurship in traditional rural domains as well as in new sectors of the economy. As we can see, the issue of transport is essential, and mobility strategies must take greater account of the issue of rurality. I can see that on the ground this issue is extremely sensitive and raises many questions. The access to broadband is another issue for rural community even though the issue is receiving increasing attention from public authorities. Around half of rural areas have no access to high-speed broadband and 12% have no connection at all. If we want farmers to adopt a wide range of sustainability practices in the framework of the European Green Deal, including precision agriculture, the use of sensor technologies and artificial intelligence, access to fast and reliable Internet connection is a must. This will not only help farmers improve their productivity and reduce their costs but will also bring multiple advantages when it comes to the environment (soil, water, fertilisers, pesticides, climate change mitigation, biodiversity).

In conclusion, I think that even if the measures proposed by the Commission today can be discussed, it is important to recognise one essential fact: the issue of the growing rural-urban divide is starting to be taken more and more seriously. This issue is in fact fundamental and conditions many debates. It is important that we are able to collectively overcome it. The European Union has a key role to play provided that it really takes the voice of the rural world into account.

Roomet Sõrmus, Copa Vice-President and Chairman of the Board at the Estonian Chamber of Agriculture and Commerce

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