Special LEADER Symposium
Towards a new Initiative
for rural development:
800 leaders give their views
Rural development for the period 2000-2006:
The symposium confirms the role of LEADER
In addition to the numerous exchanges
and beginnings of cooperation that it
made possible, the symposium in Brussels
was devoted to the role played by LEADER
in the development of rural Europe.
Initiator of the meeting, Commissioner Franz
Fischler announced that he would propose for
the programming period 2000-2006 a new Community
Initiative for rural development based on the
deepening of the main principles of LEADER.
"I believe this symposium is clear evidence that the LEADER Initiative truly is mobilising people in rural communities." It was with these words that Commissioner Franz Fischler introduced the debates of the first plenary session of the symposium in Brussels in front of over 1200 "rural developers" from 27 countries.
This mobilisation was already clear the day before on Sunday 9 November, since over 1000 people had participated in the "Meeting Points", "Forums", "Cooperation Area", "Exhibition", etc. organised on this first day to "break the ice" and discover in a convivial way the context and projects of the 800 or so LEADER officials present (see article on
"An interactive symposium").
But it was on Monday 10 November that the real debates on the future Community initiative got under way. After a review of the objectives of the meeting (bring together for the first time all the LEADER beneficiaries, encourage transnational cooperation between rural areas and reflect on the future Community Initiative for rural development) by the President of the symposium, JosÚ Manuel Silva Rodriguez, Deputy General Director of DG VI, Commissioner Fischler introduced the debates by first recalling the success of LEADER I and the more ambitious dimensions of LEADER II (821 beneficiaries on record in November 1997): "LEADER II is moving up a gear to a new level. What was a project- based approach is turning into something more like a programme-based one. LEADER has come of age and so its etiquette is changing too." The Commissioner did not, however, forget to mention the difficulties of starting up the Initiative: "but more formalised procedures, as well as bringing advantages, can also mean a heavier administrative burden and a slower rate of progress. We are very familiar with these kinds of difficulty, and we should all be doing our best to learn from them for next time. Yet I think we can still say that the engine is running now, despite a few teething problems."
Referring in particular to the 1996 Cohesion Report, the Commissioner then recalled the persistent state of economic weakness of most rural areas (decline in population, higher unemployment, per capita GDP and income 8% to 30% less than national averages), even those located in more dynamic regions. This led him to say that "no rural area should be excluded per se from the opportunity to change and develop. If we want the countryside to remain a model for society at large, we have to activate all its economic and social functions."
Franz Fischler then placed the symposium in the context of Agenda 2000 (see boxed text): "The Commission has set out its ideas on how we can cope with the future challenges facing Europe in its document 'Agenda 2000', focusing on enlargement strategy and deepening existing Community policies in order to strengthen the Union as a whole. The main issues involved in this deepening are the future shape of the Structural Funds and how to tackle the further reform of agricultural and rural development policies. The Community Initiatives too, will need reforming. The Commission is proposing a cut in the number of Initiatives from the present thirteen to three from 2000 onwards. [...] One of the three new Initiatives is to be aimed at developing rural areas. In future a 5% slice of Structural Funds spending is to be made available for these three Initiatives."
This opening address by the Commissioner was followed by the presentation by Yves Champetier and Gilda Farrell (LEADER European Observatory) of the European summary of written contributions on the definition of the future Community Initiative
(see corresponding article). This summary then gave way to a debate between Commissioner Fischler and six heads of LEADER groups (see boxed text).
From LEADER I to LEADER II
The second part of this first plenary session was devoted to a review of LEADER. Laurent Van Depoele, Director of Rural Development at DG VI, painted a "picture of LEADER's implementation" based particularly on the initial results of the ex-post evaluation of LEADER I by a group of independent experts whose final report will be published shortly. LEADER I is seen as a success story despite the fact that of the 217 programmes, a lot have resulted in insufficiently diverse actions ("a number of LAGs overdetermined tourism and underestimated support for small businesses").
LEADER I revealed high participation by women in the rural development process, a very large presence of voluntary associations ("one third of the LEADER I groups were part of the voluntary sector"), concrete expression of the "bottom-up" approach to development, the establishment of enlarged local partnerships and numerous rural networks. In terms of employment, it is estimated that about 30 000 jobs were created or consolidated by LEADER I, of which 1 500 within the local action groups.
After the presentation of the European Observatory and the activities of the LEADER Network by Yves Champetier, John Bryden, professor of rural development at the University of Aberdeen and head of the "Future Prospects" thematic group of the LEADER European Observatory, summed up the major challenges facing rural Europe, placing particular emphasis on the need to adapt the instruments of support for rural development in order to: ensure the transition between a market-based agricultural policy and a rural development policy; give concrete expression on the ground to the economic and social dimensions of sustainable development and not only to the environmental dimension; develop a long-term "rural perspective"; coordinate new forms of intervention for rural areas; define the new respective roles of the Union, Member States, Regions and local authorities; find flexible answers corresponding to the different contexts in an enlarged Union; lastly, draw the lessons from LEADER for each of these challenges.
Michael Mernagh of the Wexford LAG (Ireland) compared these prospects to the expectations of the newly created European LEADER Association for Rural Development (ELARD): to develop a new outlook and new model for European rural society from the grass-roots level; to develop and consolidate the LEADER programme dimension (LEADER is not only a source of funding); to promote the integrated approach to rural development; to improve the networking of LAGs; to promote greater flexibility within LEADER to favour more innovative and more integrated actions at the local level.
This first plenary session ended with a period of questions from the room which primarily concerned ways to cut red tape, to ensure the LAGs genuine autonomy and to better take into account the environmental dimension of the actions carried out. There were also questions about the possible impact of Agenda 2000 on rural development and LEADER: reduction of the number of Structural Objectives and the areas concerned, sources and amount of funding, LEADER eligibility for all rural areas or only those areas of the future Objectives 1 and 2.
From LEADER II to LEADER III
After Heino von Meyer's summary of the workshops (see
Guy Legras, Director General of DG VI, recognised that LEADER was "one of the too few European policies which give a positive image of Europe at the local level."
This observation was implicitly or explicitly confirmed in the 6 success stories that followed:
Giuliano Vecchi of the Antico Frignano LAG (Italy) particularly underlined the contribution of cooperatives to the economy and to the development of rural areas, particularly in terms of providing know-how relating to technology, the collective organisation of producers and the marketing of products.
Giving three examples of environment-related development projects, Leopold SjÜstrÜm of the Inlandslaget LAG (Sweden) insisted on the need for closer cooperation between local communities and the institutions concerned by the projects, a crucial challenge in this area of Lapland which has less than one inhabitant per km2: "there have to be stronger links between the authorities responsible for environmental protection who are sometimes far from the ground and the local people who are aware that nature has to be protected but feel excluded from decision-making and think that their needs are not taken into account."
Brigitte Buhse of the Knčllgebiet LAG (Germany) emphasized the relationship between elective democracy and participatory democracy: partnerships must certainly include elected officials but also and especially representatives of the "living strength" of the area.
Eric Andrieu of the Pays Cathare LAG (France) called for a rediscovery of the identity of areas and "innovation in procedures" so that this identity is given concrete expression in development projects.
Mateo Andres Huesa showed how the Maestrazgo LAG intervening in a very depopulated area of Spain succeeded in mobilising the population around collective projects in different sectors, in particular the development of heritage and cultural tourism.
Finally, Filipa Ramos of the Pinhal Interior Sul LAG (Portugal) explained how LEADER had given impetus to the area's forestry and craft enterprises by providing technical assistance in the elaboration and design of new products but also enabled the creation of an international cooperation dynamic: "cooperation always leads to an opening up and this opening up always leads to betterment; that is what we have seen happen locally by cooperating with the LAG of Sierra Morena Cordobesa in Spain and also with the region of Rzeszow in Poland."
After these success stories, Commissioner Fischler closed the symposium (see the unabridged text of
his speech), listing the points that he planned to discuss with his colleagues of the European Commission and the Council:
- a new Community Initiative for rural development needs to be launched;
- this Initiative should include and continue the essential elements of LEADER (local partnerships, bottom-up approach, emphasis on innovation, etc.), retain its experimental nature ("laboratory"), open its European network to the local groups of the candidate countries seeking membership in the Union and facilitate transnational cooperation between rural areas;
- by benefiting from simpler and more transparent procedures, the implementation of this Initiative will obey the principle of subsidiarity between all the levels of responsibility concerned. The Commissioner is also encouraging the generalisation of the system of advance to the LAGs ("the Community Initiative could be a good test for this organisational innovation");
- all the Union's rural areas should benefit from the LEADER approach;
- the new Community Initiative should retain the "laboratory" nature in order to ensure that everywhere there is "the possibility to test new ideas, to exchange experiences";
- certain LEADER principles must be deepened: eligible groups must be chosen according to strict criteria in order to guarantee a sufficient financial base for the projects selected; the issue of employment must be of greater concern together with the improvement of the quality of life and the environment.
source: LEADER Magazine nr.16 - Winter, 1997/98