Written by Christiaan van Lierop,
Should cohesion policy take more account of the needs of underpopulated areas? And what can be done to ensure that these regions continue to attract young people and businesses? These were among just some of the questions raised at the recent roundtable discussion on the demographic challenges facing Europe’s regions, held at the European Parliament Library Reading Room on Tuesday 6 September 2016. With a select group of speakers from some of Europe’s most affected countries, this lively debate which was moderated by Sarah Sheil, Head of Unit at the EPRS Structural Policies Unit, and included an interesting contribution from EPRS policy analyst Dr Magdalena Sapała, reflecting the EPRS’ expertise in this particular area.
European Parliament Vice-President Ramon Luis Valcarcel Siso helped put the debate in context by stressing the importance of this problem in the light of the upcoming discussions on the future of cohesion policy. Demographic challenges were more than just about the declining birth rate, he noted: the migrant crisis was posing its own set of challenges, highlighting a clear need for social infrastructure to tackle this issue.
Mercedes Bresso, a member of the EP’s REGI committee and Chair of the Intergroup on Rural, Mountainous and Remote Areas, focused on the situation in mountainous regions, noting that certain services in these areas, such as schools or internet access, risked falling below the minimum level needed to make the regions attractive for young people. Tourism was not always enough, she argued, and she drew attention to the potential role of organic farming and the circular economy in this context.
Representing a region that had experienced negative birth rates for many years, Regional Minister for Social Policy of the Autonomous Region of Galicia, Spain, José Manuel Rey Varela, outlined the action taken in Galicia to increase the birth rate, including tax breaks and specialist advice and support. He felt that the regions affected shared much in common and emphasised the need to work together on policies to meet the demographic challenges, calling for a cohesion policy which did not allocate funds based on GDP alone but on population distribution too. Michael Schneider, State Secretary of the Land of Saxony-Anhalt to the Federal Government of Germany emphasised that the future of cohesion policy was far from certain and that there were people in the Commission keen to allocate this money elsewhere. Good proposals were needed to ensure that cohesion policy was strong and to better address demographic problems in the regions with the help of structural funds.
Ms Babette Winter, Secretary of State for Europe and Culture, Free State of Thuringia, Germany, argued that the problem in her region was a lack of jobs more than a question of demographics. Highlighting the benefits that a broader range of cultural services and facilities had brought to Thuringia, she stressed that action was needed to support the regions affected and help people because demographic change was something that we could not prevent. Businesses would simply move elsewhere, she added, unless they had access to services such as Wi-Fi. Dr Magdalena Sapała responded with three key points. Firstly, she stressed that while there was no shortage of information about demographic challenges, researchers needed to shift their focus away from analysing past events and work on identifying innovative solutions. Secondly, she argued that the different initiatives in place could be better developed and mainstreamed, calling on researchers to examine what type of instruments were the most effective. Lastly, she highlighted the need to consider how we could make the demographic challenges more visible in the future Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF).
The presentations were rounded off with a short question and answer session, covering such issues as the prospects of the demographic challenge being reflected in the future MFF and how demographic change was linked to cities and rural areas.