Shrinking rural regions need EU, national and regional policy frameworks to support sustainable transitions

Whilst rural depopulation has long been recognised as a core challenge for many EU Member States, few policy options are specifically focused on this issue. Research undertaken by the ESCAPE research team established that 3 out of 5 rural regions across Europe are, or will be, affected by population decline in the coming decades.

The case studies of the project highlight that there are substantial differences in the rates of shrinkage between, and also within, regions. Inter and intra-regional differences were assessed as part of the case studies, which drew attention to the variety of drivers of shrinkage. These range from long run changes in the size and structure of the economy, i.e. industrial restructuring, to the outcome of political events, e.g. accession to the EU or the impacts of war.

CAP and Cohesion emphasise growth as the solution to shrinkage

A review of key EU policies, combined with the results of interviews of policy stakeholders working in the EU Commission DG Agri and DG Regio, found that current policy tools focus on mobilising and leveraging new opportunities associated with changing technological, market and social contexts. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and Cohesion Policy are the principal EU policy levers focused on tackling issues associated with rural shrinkage. The CAP Rural Development Policy provides funding that aims (among other things), to diversify employment and improve basic services by providing a range of supports for farmers and rural communities to design and implement initiatives that meet a range of economic, environmental, and societal challenges. The Cohesion Policy aims to reduce disparities of “less developed” areas, particularly regions facing industrial and agricultural decline, through national, regional and cross-border projects. In both instances, these policies seek to mitigate rural decline through population and economic growth.

Shrinkage is a growing phenomenon and place-appropriate solutions are required

The results of the review of policies, the case studies and high-level interviews at both national and EU levels undertaken as part of the ESCAPE project highlight issues with a growth-oriented policy agenda focused on aggregate economic indicators, e.g. national or regional GDP. Despite supports for growth, rural depopulation is an increasingly common phenomenon. Some EU policy literature acknowledges that, in some regions, shrinkage cannot be reversed. Despite this, the current policy landscape at EU and national levels, does not reflect differences between regions and places that can overcome shrinkage and those that will adapt to shrinkage. This reflects the lack of consideration of the root causes and drivers of shrinkage, and their implications. In addition to options that aim to tackle shrinkage, EU and national policy needs to identify and promote effective ways of adapting to rural shrinkage – measures that emphasise the quality of life and well-being for people living in shrinking rural areas.

In developing policy responses, that seek to tackle or adapt to rural shrinkage, there is a need to take into consideration the resources and, particularly, the capacity of regional and local policy stakeholders, including local communities, to engage with existing, or contribute to future, policy options. The key to this is the support that fosters and builds leadership capacity, that empowers participation in policy design and implementation processes.

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  • Author: Ryan Weber, Nordregio, David Meredith Teagasc, Rural Economy Development Programme