Members' Research Service By / March 14, 2022

The future of the EU’s rural areas

One of the main objectives of EU policy is to maintain vibrant rural areas. Rural economies however still face a number of socio‑economic pressures.

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Written by Rachele Rossi.

One of the main objectives of EU policy is to maintain vibrant rural areas. Rural economies however still face a number of socio‑economic pressures. The European Commission’s long-term vision for EU rural areas, to 2040, identifies action to take to ensure stronger, connected, resilient and prosperous rural areas and communities.

Recent figures reveal that rural areas cover more than 80 % of total EU territory and are home to 30 % of the EU population. These areas are both nature reservoirs and agricultural spaces. Moreover, life in rural areas can be a safer and healthier alternative to living in highly populated cities, and a hub for innovating ideas on more sustainable business models. However, many EU rural areas face the same challenges, such as demographic decline, low income and lack of economic opportunities, poor access to services and connectivity, low education and digital skill levels, and low employment rates, especially among women.

In 1997, the European Commission’s Agenda 2000 made the first move towards creating an EU rural development policy within the common agricultural policy (CAP). Co‑financed by EU and national funds, rural development measures helped rural areas tackle economic, environmental and social challenges. Over the years, rural development expenditure has continued to increase. Evaluations have highlighted the positive impact of certain measures, such as those related to village renewal and local development approach, as they are considered well-targeted and relevant to local needs. Although these measures only represent a small proportion of CAP funding, they play an important role in addressing the socio-economic needs of rural areas.

The recently adopted rules of the post-2022 CAP set the types of intervention for rural development that should be funded under the national CAP strategic plans. Each EU country will define where CAP funding will be used to achieve set objectives, including employment, growth, gender equality, social inclusion and local development in rural areas. The Commission’s recommendations on the national CAP strategic plans indicate that they are aiming to make fast broadband internet in rural areas accessible to 100 % of the population by 2025. This means that the share of rural households with next generation access (NGA) broadband will have to increase significantly from the 2019 EU average share of 56.4 %.

Following a public consultation launched in September 2020, the European Commission published ‘A long-term Vision for the EU’s Rural Areas – Towards stronger, connected, resilient and prosperous rural areas by 2040‘ on 30 June 2021. This represents a significant policy development. The specific issues and challenges faced by rural areas are now at the core of a wide‑ranging set of actions that look even beyond the CAP’s rural development measures. The long‑term vision includes proposals for a rural pact that engages EU, national, regional and local levels in supporting the vision and action plan with flagship projects and new tools to support stronger, connected, resilient and prosperous rural areas. A rural observatory will help improve data collection and analysis on the situation in rural areas. A ‘rural proofing’ mechanism will assess the anticipated impact of major EU legislative initiatives on rural areas.

The Commission’s communication sparked stakeholders’ interest and expectations for its potentially game‑changing role in the EU’s approach to the development of rural areas. For its part, the European Parliament has decided to draw up an own-initiative report on the long‑term vision for the EU’s rural areas.

More information can be found in the briefings on ‘Long-term vision for rural areas: European Commission communication‘ and ‘EU rural development policy: Impact, challenges and outlook‘ on the European Parliament Think Tank.

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