Shaping a new rural vision for Europe

By Dacian Ciolos, MEP (Renew Europe Group-Chair) Former Commissioner for Agriculture

Our rural life is the cornerstone of our Continent and represents beautifully the greatest symbol of our European pledge « United in our Diversity ». These unique reservoirs of social, economic and environmental innovation and transformation are only waiting to be used to their full potential. But these communities are faced with major struggles. Farmers, rural enterprises and start-ups already challenged by global market trends and competition are now dealing with the COVID-19 crisis.

The future cannot just be urban. Environmental and climate challenges, biodiversity loss, digital connectivity gaps and socio-economic recovery demand not only new practices and a new political and policy approach to rural areas but also massive investments.

EU priorities through rural lenses

Rural areas should be in a position to play a more prominent role in the recovery and reconstruction plan. Our next generation will also be a rural one. This should be reflected by closer links and ease of access between rural and urban areas. Many urban dwellers are fascinated by rural life, while our youth in the countryside are forced into cities because of lack access to basic services.

To turn challenges into advantages, the EU needs more integrated policies and strategies, to in-crease the energy and innovation capacity of our rural communities, to tackle decarbonisation, digitalisation and climate as well as social and economic development. From health to education, from quality jobs to broadband, these policies should provide access to equal services and strengthen the cohesion and cooperation between rural and urban areas and communities.

Both the digital agenda and Green deal can be an opportunities to strike a new societal balance between urban and rural areas, shaping a more inclusive society, closing the service gap and launch-ing a renew economic prospect for our countryside.

Agriculture, food and health potential, culture and tourism, solutions to the climate and energy challenges are some of the unique levers on which Europe can build a strong new vision for its rural areas.

New hard and soft investments need to be co-designed with rural communities to reflect their needs and to seize these opportunities:

– Digital Agenda. Digital innovation is essential to cope with many of the impacts of the crisis and will be equally important for recovery and the reorganisation of rural- urban relations. Innovation in sustainable mobility, decentralized energy production, work and service provision also offer huge opportunities for rural and urban areas.

– Green Deal. The circular economy and ecosystem services – needs to be recognised, valued and enhanced. There is no serious argument to water down ambitions of the European Green Deal in the light of COVID-19. On the contrary, the crisis is a chance to dig deeper into the real challenges of an eco-fair transition and the role European Institutions and citizens shall play.

A fresh impetus is also needed in the rural dimension of cohesion, research, digital skills and innovation, connectivity policies and programmes. The Common Agricultural Policy should play a greater role in unifying the expectations of farmers and citizens around a common food project. The Farm to Fork and the Biodiversity strategies are a unique opportunities and must be fully exploited.

The recent vote on the Common Agricultural Policy in the European Parliament is a new step in the process of transforming this policy, a step towards a stronger integration of society’s expectations and for a more attractive kind of agriculture for a new generation of farmers.

The Parliament has given a political dimension to a Commission proposal that was initially mainly administrative. We are on course to better support farmers who face major changes in their profession, particularly in terms of the green and digital transitions. Now the negotiations will start with the Council.

Those that are constantly asking for the reform to be rejected, rather than rolling up their sleeves and building a compromise, are simply irresponsible. Their ideological stance would freeze any change for 3 or 4 years, even though we have planned a revision of the CAP as early as 2025. Trans-forming the CAP is not a one off exercise but an ongoing process.

What is clear, is that the future CAP will be a lever to fully realise the ambition of the Green deal. We will give the Commission a strong mandate to ensure the credibility of future national strategic plans. These strategic plans will have to produce results, and will be monitored via performance indicators. The greening measures of 2013 will be integrated into the mandatory requirements to receive direct payments, and will therefore become the rule for all European farmers, under a rein-forced cross-compliance that will better protect water quality, enhance carbon capture, and further preserve biodiversity. These are concrete steps forward.

An new dynamic, involving rural communities

Beyond the CAP, the future of Europe as a whole should be shaped through rural lenses. This can be achieved by launching an inclusive dynamic, building on rural movements and social innovation including inter-generational cooperation.

Rurality must remain firmly at the top of the European agenda.