Boosting rural development: 20 years on from the Cork Declaration
European Parliament - credit: PA
“Previous generations in Europe built sewers, roads, fresh water systems, they put in telephones and we can’t run one fibre-optic cable to every house in Europe. What the hell is wrong with us? It is not beyond our technology. There must be some reason this is being stopped, and stopped is the word.”
This was the challenge, posed by Brendan Burns, European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) NAT President – one of the people tasked with leading the EESC's work on policies related to agriculture and environment – as delegates from across the European Union’s member states met to discuss the development of Europe’s rural areas 20 years on from the Cork Declaration.
The Cork Declaration warned that “leaving rural areas behind is no longer an option”, while producing a ten point rural development programme aimed at bridging a growing gap between cities and urban areas. But, twenty years on from its call for "a fairer balance" of public spending and investments between rural and urban areas, recent economic, social and territorial cohesion studies show the gap between rural and urban areas is still growing.
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So what has gone wrong in attempts to stimulate development in Europe’s rural areas? Clearly the process has been a slow one, and Burns did not hide his frustration, telling the conference, “I am deeply concerned that politicians do not understand this, and quite frankly that they do not care.”
Rural and intermediate areas account for 91 per cent of the European Union’s territory and contain 60 per cent of its population. They provide 56 per cent of the jobs and generate 43 per cent of the gross value added. But still, development has been too slow.
This point was confirmed by the study "Evolution of the EU budget dedicated to rural development”, which laid bare that the well-being and interests of the rural areas are lower down the list of political priorities nowadays than they were back when the Cork Declaration was first made.
In fact the share of funding for rural areas has decreased. As a result, the inequality gap has widened.
Economic development of rural areas has been neglected across Europe, Committee of the Regions first Vice-President Karl-Heinz Lambertz said.
He told conference: “The European budget dedicated to rural development shows that it is insufficient given the weight of rural areas in Europe but more worryingly there is a significant decrease compared to the previous programming period.”
Meanwhile Burns warned that young people will not stay in rural areas if there are greater economic and social opportunities available in urban centres.
He said: “When we don't give perspectives for young people by investing in infrastructure and stimulating economic growth and job creation, we lose our most precious capital, namely our youth, and this is the start of the dying of rural areas”.
But while the same challenges face rural areas across Europe – from a lack of infrastructure to low levels of public spending from respective governments – the conference heard how solutions must be local if they are to succeed.
Part of the solution lies in ‘rural proofing’ policy, conference heard, with the Scottish Government’s ‘island proofing’ plan held up as a similar sort of example of how it might work. But while there was a consensus that the idea was a good one, delegates were obviously sceptical about how it might work in practice. Clear objectives, yet to be articulated, will be key.
Committee of the Regions NAT Vice-President Tony Buchanan told conference: “It is clear that local government needs to be part of the real sustainable development of our rural communities.”
He said: “I welcome the adoption of the Cork 2.0 declaration and the focus now needs to be on implementing the conclusions reached to ensure that we have vibrant rural areas where people can live and work in an environment which is prosperous, which is innovative and which offers opportunities which currently may not exist.”
And while delegates pointed to the need for closer cooperation between different rural areas in Europe, EESC President Georges Dassis said that cooperation must also happen on a political level.
He said: “It is high time to form a strategic alliance between all stakeholders who promote a better tapping of rural areas' potential and that this alliance must not only include the CoR and the EESC but also the European Parliament”.
Those meeting in Brussels will have been hoping that, looking back at the conference in 20 years’ time, they will be able to point to more tangible signs of progress than they could this time round.