Rural areas are home to 115 million EU citizens. Furthermore, European rural areas provide stable food, minerals, water supplies, renewable energy, historical landscapes and cultural resources. However, most of these areas are facing the same problems related to depopulation and funding needs.
In order to overcome these and other challenges and highlight some of the multiple opportunities of rural areas’ development, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) has organised a hearing on Villages and small towns as catalysts for rural development - challenges and opportunities.
The hearing was divided into two sessions, the first one consisted in Practitioners and Stakeholders presenting success stories on cohesion and development actions in rural areas. The second panel was that of Institutions and Funders who exposed their policy responses to the specific needs of these areas.
In the first panel, stakeholders from rural areas in Wales, Hungary, Croatia and Austria exposed their successful projects in rural areas, all of them having many features in common. Indeed, the pillars of their success can be summarised in: volunteering, engagement with local businesses and young people, community cohesion, investment in eco-friendly rural tourism and innovation in agriculture, moving towards a respectful use of natural resources.
On the other hand, members of the Committee of the Regions, European Commission, DG REGIO and the University of Liège presented policy alternatives in order to improve the difficult situation in rural areas, which can be best measured by the exodus of young people and the asymmetric distribution of the funds from the Common Agricultural Policy.
Finally, both panels showed the need for internal collaboration in rural areas, encouraging local activities especially with support to the youth but most importantly, they insisted on the necessity to go beyond the traditional association between the development of rural areas and that of the primary sector, in other words to diversify the economic fabric of these areas.