When describing our diverse EU family, we love to gush about the likes of Paris, Budapest or Prague – but what about those further-afield places, whose name you may not know?
Rural areas account for approximately 77% of all EU territory. Despite this, it’s the big cities that tend to receive the most attention in the media, which can leave rural communities feeling underrepresented at best and completely forgotten and disconnected at worst.
An increasing proportion of EU citizens may be city-dwellers, but Europe’s rural communities are still vital to the wider community. For both the good of the inhabitants and the rest of us, we must ensure they are allowed to thrive, despite their unique obstacles. From environmental and cultural preservation to agricultural produce – where would we be without our green spaces?
And the EU institutions have rural development on their radar, having launched a new campaign to reach out to rural citizens last year. This is deemed especially pertinent since many point the finger at this rural isolation as a key contributor to the anti-EU rhetoric which ultimately ended with Brexit…
Every community should feel empowered to strive for improvement however it can, to make sure that citizens are always able to harness their own future and feel fulfilled – no matter where they live. But is it a realistic goal for Europe’s rural communities to have opportunities and connectivity to match our cities, or is this an unavoidable trade-off to live in relative tranquility (and air quality)? Can the EU really provide rural communities with what they need to thrive in the modern, globalised era? And will the digital revolution help or hinder rural areas?
“My Region, My Future” – A new EU initiative
With its new campaign, entitled “My Region, My Future,” the EU seeks to reconnect with European citizens living in rural areas. Launched back in August 2019, over the next 8 months – the campaign will attempt to reach individuals throughout rural regions of 7 target EU member states (France, Spain, Italy, Poland, Latvia, Hungary, and Greece) via a range of media channels, demonstrating examples of how specific EU initiatives and policies contribute to regional and rural development.
They intend to showcase that living in rural areas can also offer opportunities – to both reassure rural Europeans that they don’t have to flock to the cities – and make them feel included in the wider European community.
But why the need to reach out to rural areas specifically? What unique challenges to Europe’s rural communities face?
Globalisation: Enemy of the Small Town?
As we discussed some time ago, globalisation has made people identify with increasingly larger communities. Once identifying primarily with their neighbourhood or village, people then developed more of a regional or national identity. And now – to an extent – citizens identify with even larger entities such as the EU.
But this isn’t so apparent in Europe’s more remote corners – where people still largely identify primarily with their village, town or region – and are less likely to feel broadly “European” as a result. These micro-identities are only strengthened by the very real threat which globalisation poses to unique cultures, traditions, and regional languages – which arguably the most isolated communities hold even dearer than the rest of us.
Rural traditions in the face of digitalisation
In rural areas, the EU claims to be prioritising the creation of employment opportunities, the development of modernised digital infrastructure, the adoption of efficient, environmentally-friendly technologies, nature conservation, access to education and training, and safeguarding traditional customs and products.
Indeed, it is supposedly at the core of EU values to protect cultural heritage and help communities to continue their local traditions as much they want to. The key is finding that balance between conserving tradition and embracing modernisation.
A particularly pertinent issue affecting Europe’s villages and small towns is depopulation, which contributes to an aging population with low birth rates and high dependency rates. This is due mainly to an exodus of young people to the cities or abroad in order to find more opportunities, leaving primarily the older generations to occupy the small towns and villages.
The answer to managing this demographic dip lies in making rural areas more desirable for young people – to ensure that they do not have to leave in order to secure stable and inspiring employment or training. It should also be a goal to make small towns and villages more appealing to outsiders. This may spark fear in the hearts of life-long villagers petrified of change and outside influence – but an influx of new people to fill the homes and fund local services could be just the energy a village needs to feel more relevant. For many villages today, it could even be essential to ensure their continuation.
The Services Deficit
Speaking of services – another common complaint among rural populations is that there are often fewer services available to them – for instance, education, health, and leisure facilities which city-dwellers take for granted.
Obviously, for various reasons – from protecting the natural landscape to a simple lack of space or demand – it is not often possible to have a hospital or a high school in a village or small town. As such, EU, national and regional authorities need to invest more in infrastructure and public transport to ensure that small towns are better connected to larger cities, and that communities can enjoy rural life without forgoing access to services. This, of course, will also be further incentive for young people to stay and for commuters to move in, which will help to stabilise the dependency rate.
The Future of Work: An unlikely village saviour?
As remote working is gaining a rapidly increasing popularity among employers and job-seekers alike – due to both the reduced administrative costs and the freedom it offers employees – it also has the potential to be an unlikely saviour for the livelihood of our quaint little towns.
One of the most stubborn obstacles to rural development is the need for the most qualified inhabitants to flee to the cities if they want any hope of pursuing careers other than agriculture and other select industries. With the possibility to work from home now reaching a huge variety of fields – from financial or communications consulting to online teaching or technical writing – gone are the days where a high-flying career has to mean inhaling your fair share of pollution on your way to a high-rise.
If this provokes fewer young people leaving their small hometowns once qualified, or even qualified professionals relocating outside of the cities, it may ease the threat of depopulation and keep small towns full of life.
The bottom line
On the one hand, it is in the interests of all to preserve Europe’s last rural pockets from the grey threat of urban sprawl – but where does that leave the inhabitants of our most remote villages and their access to services and opportunities?
It may seem like we are between a rock and a hard place when it comes to balancing rural Europe’s practical needs to thrive and progress, and the preservation of our precious (and dwindling) natural landscapes. Up until now, regional development has been synonymous with urban sprawl, but can the digital revolution offer a new option for our remaining rural areas?
And when it comes to European identity, how can the EU institutions ensure that rural communities don’t continue to look inward as they did in the UK, and lose touch with the wider European community which they are a part of on paper?
The simultaneous environmental and digital advances in the past few years may have promise when it comes to the future of the sustainable connectivity of society – so that both rural and urban communities can feel empowered, connected, and secure.