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A Changing Rural Reality Requires a Fresh Approach

European rural policy is out of date and fails to reflect the reality of 21st century Europe, according to a major new report. The report calls for a fresh approach, more attuned to contemporary realities and issues - a "Rural Cohesion Policy" - which can help rural areas play their part in Europe's emergence from the current economic downturn.

"These findings challenge many stereotypes about rural areas, but these myths still underlie reforms proposed for Europe's rural policies from 2014," according to Dr Andrew Copus, the project's leader. "The latest reform proposals do not go far enough. A more radical shift is required, aimed at strengthening the capacity for entrepreneurship and growth in diversified rural economies".

The report calls for tailored and locally managed approaches to stimulate more effective exploitation of rural potentials, including human and social capital; as such echoing the key message of the influential Barca report on regional policy a couple of years ago. However the EDORA researchers make a number of points which apply specifically to rural policy:

  • Rural change varies systematically across Europe, reflecting structural forces which cannot be addressed simply through localised, place-based actions. Local action needs to be complemented by macro-scale diagnosis, strategic planning and intervention. A 'two-tier' approach is required.
  • While agriculture is important to rural areas, (especially in the South and East of Europe), it is rarely associated with rural prosperity. Growth is characteristic of diversified rural economies with a much broader mix of industries.
  • The EDORA findings challenge outdated stereotypes about the origins of rural economic growth. The assumption that growth is an urban phenomenon, and that rural areas benefit mainly through rural-urban linkages is clearly evident in recent EU policy documents. However the EDORA report shows that economic dynamism is just as likely in rural areas, even those which are remote or sparsely populated. Moreover, diversified and prosperous rural economies may be sustained by "translocal", rather than rural-urban, linkages.

Europe needs growth in the context of the economic downturn. But the potential of rural economies cannot be fully realised by sectoral rural policies, nor by promoting cooperation and linkages with adjacent urban areas. Instead policies should support rural businesses (across all sectors), as they seek to survive and grow in an increasingly interconnected and globalised world.

"The changing reality of rural Europe in the 21st Century means that a fresh approach is required," says Dr Copus. "This is especially important in the current economic context, when policies should be supporting growth originating in all sectors and all areas, rural as well as urban."

Lisa Hörnström

Senior Research Fellow

The EDORA Project

This report is based on findings from the EDORA (European Development Opportunities in Rural Areas) project. The overarching aim of EDORA was to examine the process of differentiation in rural areas, in order to better understand how EU, national and regional policy can enable these areas to build upon their specific potentials to achieve (in the words of the EU 2020 strategy) "smart, sustainable and inclusive growth." EDORA was a project funded under the ESPON 2013 programme. It began in September 2008 and was completed in March 2011. This project was coordinated by the University of the Highlands and Islands, supported by a large consortium representing twelve EU Member States.