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Special LEADER Symposium

Towards a new Initiative for rural development:
800 leaders give their views

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A new Community Initiative
for the development of rural areas

Closing speech by Mr Franz Fischler,
Member of the European Commission
in charge of Agriculture and Rural Development.


Ladies and Gentlemen, we are now approaching the end of our three-day LEADER symposium. These have been days spent getting to know each other and making new discoveries. They have been days of intensive discussion and concentrated work, days of summing up and looking towards the future. I regret very much that I was unable to spend the whole time with you and derive full benefit from the expertise gathered here. I believe, however, that we have every reason to be proud of the rich array of ideas and initiatives which have emerged. 800 LEADER groups have put forward their points of view. It is no easy thing to summarise the wide range of experience and proposals. Just the same, allow me to draw some preliminary conclusions from the symposium. For me three essential messages have emerged:


1 - We need a new Community Initiative for rural development

The analysis presented in the working report on rural development and the conclusions of the European Cohesion Forum and in particular the Cork Conference stress the need for an effective and lasting rural development policy. Agenda 2000 has set the first signposts towards a new approach of this kind. A strengthened rural development policy not only involves efficient regional programmes, but also the possibility within the framework of a new Community Initiative, of giving additional impetus to the development process. The first and most important conclusion from the Symposium in my view is that we need a Community Initiative for rural development, including after 1999. From my point of view it is unimportant what the new Community Initiative is called; the packaging does not matter, it is the content which is important and this conference has given us many important pointers towards what that content should be. The new Community Initiative should take up the central features of LEADER I and LEADER II and carry them on.

We can only achieve lasting development of rural areas if we succeed in mobilising the population on the ground. It is precisely in this area that the new Community Initiative must take its stand and as before support local groups. Use of local resources, participation of the local population, encouragement of private initiatives and strengthening of local partnerships are for me the conditions needed to ensure success. At the same time there is no easy way to organize this 'bottom-up' approach. Every Member State and every region has its own experience which can be used as the basis for developing the best possible approach. Nevertheless the effect must be the same in all regions. The local partnerships and the 'bottom-up' approach strengthens democracy at local level. LEADER has shown that we are not concerned with presenting citizens with Europe as a standardised product, but are rather concerned to identify and develop salient regional features and specialities. If a European Initiative helps people identify with their local area then we are also helping them to identify with Europe. Precisely because we are working towards a new kind of policy in the future for rural areas we also need to be able to experiment and try out new ideas for rural development. The new Community Initiative must retain the laboratory character of previous Initiatives. This means that the actors involved must achieve the proper chemistry. We must be ready to take a chance on establishing new links and it must be possible for one or other experiment to go wrong on occasion. At the same time we must organize our laboratory in such a way that we do not repeat the same experiment again and again in different places. The new Community Initiative must continue to encourage genuine innovation. It must have as one of its aims the implementation of projects which cannot yet be financed via either the structural programmes or rural development policy. Accordingly, "soft" investments should be given preference over traditional "hard" investments.

To enable rural areas to be inspired by the ideas, the innovating potential and the enthusiasm of other rural areas, we continue to need a network of local action groups. My hope is that the exchange of experience, mutual willingness to learn from each other and the possibility of cooperation will not fail as a result of linguistic and national frontiers or boundaries between assistance areas. For this purpose we will continue in the future to need a vital European network for local groups. Just how important this network is for solidarity between the rural areas we realize this morning when faced with the call for support for victims of the Italian earthquake. I should like to support this appeal and express my solidarity with the victims of natural catastrophes in Italy and Portugal.

The LEADER principle is finally of particular importance for the accession countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Mobilisation of the rural population and the practice of democratic decision-making processes at local level will help consolidate the process of political and economic transformation. The report to Working Group 6 on a joint project by two LEADER groups and a Polish group was therefore a most welcome development. Again and again we are encountering great interest in the LEADER philosophy in the Central and Eastern European countries. We must take this interest seriously and open our networks for local groups in these countries.

Cross-border cooperation demonstrates the possibilities for the development of rural Europe. It not only serves the purpose of planning and carrying out joint projects, but also enables us to further the process of bringing Europe together at local level. We also need to incorporate this element into the new Community Initiative.


2 - We must step up efficacy and transparency by simplifying procedures.

LEADER is now coming of age. The new dimensions we are entering bring the challenge of new difficulties. We should see these experiences as part of the learning process embodied by LEADER. In view of the great variety of rural areas in the Union and the great differences in starting conditions it is a matter of course that a policy for the development of rural areas must be based on the principle of subsidiarity. This also applies to the new Community Initiative. For it to succeed, people at all relevant levels will have to play their part. Someone said yesterday in Working Group 5 that it is not necessary for everyone to do everything. Subsidiarity means that the tasks must be clearly defined and that people at all levels must be prepared to assume their responsibilities. I am convinced that the Member States will find ways of sharing responsibility within their constitutions and legal systems. Simplification of administrative procedures is for me a subject which is crucial to the motivation of our citizens and the success of our rural development policy. In the past few days we have had many indications of how the transparency and efficacy of assistance can be improved. Not all the proposals can be put into practice just like that, but we are taking them all seriously and we will also use the reform of the Structural Funds and the Common Agricultural Policy to make Union policy easier to understand. We need clear rules that should be drawn up by the beginning of the next programming period.

In connection with the reform of the Structural Funds, it has been proposed that the financial implementation of the programmes could be improved by introducing a system of advance payments followed by reimbursement of expenditure. During the symposium a number of participants suggested that a system of advance payments could be incorporated in the new Community Initiative. I think this is a good idea, which would facilitate and speed up implementation. The Community Initiative might also be a good testing ground for an organisational innovation of this kind.


3 - When we implement the new Community Initiative, we must deepen the LEADER approach adopted so far.

The reform of rural development policy proposed in Agenda 2000 would mean that in future no rural area would be excluded from it. All rural areas would have the opportunity of building up their own development strategy. We hope that our proposals offer the best way of encouraging both the adjustment of agricultural structures and sustainable rural development, since a competitive farming industry needs a competitive environment, i.e. it needs living rural areas. At the beginning of this meeting you expressed the wish that the LEADER idea be introduced into all rural areas. I cannot but support you in this. It is of course clear that the new Community Initiative should be implemented in the future Objective 1 and 2 areas. It does however make sense, for the very reason that we want to have a Union-wide rural development policy, to support the possibility of trying out new ideas and exchanging experience, even outside the eligible areas. Why shouldn't all rural areas be enabled to take up the LEADER idea through the new Community Initiative? I will talk to my colleagues in the Commission and the Council of Ministers about offering these possibilities to all rural areas in the Union in future. This is of course not to say that the new Community Initiative should be spread so thinly over Europe that it does not have its full effect anywhere. This would be of no benefit to anyone. The new Community Initiative must be much more targeted in order to enable the new seedlings in the soil of rural development to put down their roots.

When it comes to implementing the new Community Initiative on the development of rural areas we must bear three aspects in mind:

  • Firstly, strict criteria must be used to select which groups are to receive funding in order to guarantee adequate financial support for the chosen initiatives.

  • Secondly, we also have to think about strategic funding priorities. A number of interesting ideas have been generated by conference participants. For instance, Working Group 1 emphasised that LEADER has made an important contribution to improving employment in rural areas. We have to consider how a new Community Initiative might be able to further this objective.

  • The third point has to be improving the quality of life and of the environment in rural areas.

The quality of life in rural areas is increasingly defined by access to services. Working Group 2 showed that it will be difficult to persuade people to remain in the countryside unless we provide adequate services. As we have already seen regarding the use of financial resources available to the LEADER Initiative, we must strive to maintain the essential critical mass of rural services. These are just a few examples of priority areas in which a new Community Initiative could offer added value over and above that provided by the standard programmes.

At the close of the LEADER symposium I would like to thank you all for having taken the time to discuss your experiences with us and help elaborate a basic outline for a new Community Initiative for rural development. I hope you have all benefited from the abundant opportunities provided by this conference to make new contacts and build on existing ties.

I would like to extend my warmest thanks not only to the Chairs and speakers of the plenary events and the various working groups, but also to everyone else who took an active part in the working groups, discussions and exhibitions, and to the local action groups who had already submitted their opinions before the symposium. You have all helped ensure the success of this conference. I would particularly like to thank those who have worked behind the scenes to ensure the smooth running of this conference, which has been truly impressive in scale. The symposium could not have taken place without the help of staff from the European Observatory and the European Commission and, last but not least, the aid of the interpreters. I would like to wish you all continued success in your work, and hope to see you again once we launch a new Community Initiative for rural development.

Brussels, November 11, 1997

source: LEADER Magazine nr.16 - Winter, 1997/98

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