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The European rural model

[ Index ]


Rural Europe at the turn of the third millennium
"Diversity" is the key word

by Marjorie JOUEN

Rural development is the continuation of an
ancestral dialogue between people and nature.
It reflects the way in which natural constraints
have been overcome and wealth has been utilised.
In the 1990s, rural areas gave Europeans and their
political leaders quite a surprise when they
emerged as dynamic and innovative areas, attracting
businesses and city dwellers. This article takes a look
at today's rural Europe [1].


Travelling across the European countryside, we soon get the impression of a Europe as seen through a kaleidoscope. The diversity of the terrains, climates, landscapes and population densities is matched by the great variety of economic activities, agricultural productions, problems and opportunities.

A more detailed analysis also suggests that although rural areas may be very far apart from one another geographically and culturally, there is something similar about them. On making comparisons, we discover some unexpected common traits between Northern Ireland and certain French regions or between the German Land of Rhineland- Palatinate and Navarra in Spain.

Indeed rural development did not happen by chance. It is the continuation of an ancestral dialogue between people and nature. It reflects the way in which natural constraints have been overcome and natural resources exploited. It is, in some ways, a testimony to the existence of a political momentum to find solutions or to empower rural communities, freeing the inhabitants from a sense of fatalism.

This long process has led to a variety of forms taken by rural development policy, namely, as an instrument of modernisation, of repair and of protection.

Thus, the analysis of rural Europe today is a contemporary testimony of our concerns and our ambitions at the turn of the century. Had this been done 20 years ago when heavy industry - at the time considered as "light and advanced" - and infrastructures were still considered a must for local development, the results would have been much different. In the 1990s, rural areas gave Europeans and their political leaders quite a surprise when they emerged as dynamic and innovative areas, attracting businesses and city dwellers. The reversal in demographic trends, registered recently in some rural areas, is radically changing the situation. Suddenly, the countryside is no longer looked upon with condescension but with interest. What before was seen as backwards is now being considered an opportunity. In short, the analysis of the assets and constraints of rural areas has been set on its head and continues to change. These trends, arising from rural development policies and the progress made since the launch of the LEADER I Community Initiative programme in 1991, encourage us to look at another side of rural Europe and to judge it, this time, in the light of innovation.


The impact of geography and the economy

Europe is a densely populated continent situated in a temperate zone. Its northern part is formed by vast lowlands and ancient eroded mountains (Caledonian and Hercynian ranges), sometimes rejuvenated (Scandinavia), and a southern part home to mountain chains dating back to the the tertiary era (notably the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Greek Pindus and the Carpathians) and a few small, hemmed-in coastal plains.

With the exception of the Netherlands and Luxembourg primarily because of their size, each country is in the best of cases faced with two contrasting types of territory and in the worst of cases with a great diversity of regional situations. This is the case, for example, in Scandinavia whose northern part is characterised by an artic climate and a sparse population whereas the more hospitable southern Sweden and Finland enjoy rich soils. In the case of Germany, the consequences of the communist regime not considered, the large farms in the northeast lowlands sharply contrast with the cultivation methods and ownership structures in the southwest, suited to a more hilly terrain. In mountainous countries like Spain and Italy, there seems to be an infinite alternation between valleys and mountains.

Of the two most difficult natural handicaps, altitude is an omnipresent constraint in Austria, Greece, Spain and Italy. The climate is also a decisive obstacle, whether it is drought in southern Spain, Italy and Greece, low rainfall in certain central regions of Germany, like Brandenburg, or the cold resulting from the latitude in Finland and Sweden.

The difficult living and farming conditions are sometimes compounded by the isolation created by difficult communications in the islands of Denmark or Greece, by the long distances in Finland and Sweden, or by the terrain in Spain, Scotland and Greece. Of course, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Reunion, Guyana, Madeira, the Azores and the Canaries, because of their status as ultra-peripheral regions, are extreme cases.

The soil and subsoil also leave their marks on economic development. Poor soil and low-yield agriculture are often conducive to extensive farming practices and/or the predominance of forestry over agriculture. That is the case of entire countries like Ireland, Greece, Finland and large parts of the United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal and Italy.

Mineral and coal resources provided the cradles of the first industrial revoluation, and as a result, introduced competition between agriculture and industry, causing an early rural exodus and putting considerable pressure on the land. Agriculture had to adapt to this and now has to cope with industrial pollution. The consequences are still felt in the centre of England, mining Wales, Saxony, Lower Saxony and Saarland, Nord-Pas-de Calais, and in certain parts of Wallonia.

The obstacles that rural regions today have to overcome are not all natural, far from it. They are the result of human intervention and the development approach chosen after the Second World War. These have engendered the pollution through the use of pesticides and other chemicals in intensive farming regions like Brittany, Flanders and the Netherlands, or through excessive irrigation practices in Andalusia, Murcia, Alentejo, Algarve and Aquitaine.

By contrast, a number of regions are endowed with an outstanding natural landscape that can be promoted through a tourist development strategy and recreational facilities: for example, in the Rhône- Alpes and Midi-Pyrénées in France, Bavaria in Germany, the Abruzzi and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia in Italy, the Tyrol in Austria, Scotland, Ireland, certain parts of Greece, the Arctic regions of Finland and Sweden, etc. Some of these areas can also draw on a cultural identity and traditions that are still very much alive.


Rural development policy - a reflection
of an historic and social context

Rural development policy clearly comes across as an attempted response to the problems of a given time and place.

In this respect, a significant difference is the historic situation in which rural areas find themselves. It is now known that the image of the rural world, in decline since the Second World War, needs to be viewed with great nuance. But we still too often forget that this vision is entirely unfounded for half the Member States whose rural areas have had to cope with profound and sudden transformations in the last 20 years only.

Thus very roughly speaking, a distinction can be made between a first group of countries where the major changes date back to the beginning of the 20th century or the 1950s. In these countries, the economic, demographic and social situation of rural areas is more or less stable, either slowly declining (France, Denmark, Italy) or slightly improving (Sweden and south England).

On the whole, the notion of innovation, the partnership approach or the development of local indigenous potential arouses moderate enthusiasm. National or regional rural development policies encourage the diversification of all economic activities, not just farming. The vocational training policies in place for many years now in Denmark, Germany and Sweden, or for only a few decades now in France, have already produced spectacular economic results. The plight of non-agricultural communities is being given priority attention, eg, living conditions, jobs and the development of tourist facilities. Large- scale programmes to create new rural businesses and organise quality social services have been launched in Hessen (Germany) and Denmark.

In the second group of countries, the rural world is or was recently confronted with various crises, outmigration, a sharp rise in unemployment or the accelerated restructuring of production and farms. For example, the farming population in Portugal fell from 48% in 1950 to 10% in 1990. In the five new German Länder, the number of people working in agriculture plunged from 850 000 to 155 000 between 1989 and 1994. In Finland, rural areas registered a 200 000 loss of population in the 1980s, and between 1993 and 1996, unemployment reached a peak of 50% in certain Lapp villages. In these countries, as well as in Ireland, Spain and Greece, rural development has mainly focused on improving farmers' skills, lending assistance for restructuring and upgrading production techniques in addition to efforts to reduce the isolation of the most remote regions. Communities experiencing instability tend to be more open to innovation and more prepared to accept less traditional models of development. This explains the success of the measures aimed at utilising local indigenous potential and setting up partnerships.

However appealing and simple it may seem, defining three types of rural areas - urban-centred, dynamic and productive, declining and isolated - on the basis of population density and the economic dynamic rarely coincides with the regional strategies implemented.

Except for some very typical regions, like the Arctic regions or the Belgian provinces, this grading can rarely be used to identify all the problems and opportunities. For example, a large population living in the countryside is synonymous with economic dynamism in Tuscany or Umbria while in Portugal or Greece this situation presents serious revitalisation problems. However, the size of the rural population is a good indicator of the importance being given to rural development by the political, economic and social players. In the European Union, this figure varies between 15% and 50% of the total population, exceeding 40% in Ireland, Luxembourg, Italy, Finland and Austria.

If we look at rural policies in the strict sense, major differences exist from one country to another, and from one region to another in the very decentralised countries. In some Member States, this is a long-time concern and area of expertise. In France, the first "Plans d'aménagement rural" / "Rural Development Plans" were adopted in the 1970s; these were supplemented by a number of measures aimed at agriculture or spatial planning, resulting in particular in contractual procedures for protection and development, such as the Regional Nature Parks or the "Contrats de Pays" / "Territorial Development Contracts".

In the Netherlands and Sweden, rural areas have been the focus of attention for many years now and the first policies go back to this time. In Austria, the "Programme for the Development of Mountain Areas" was started in 1979 and introduced the practice of integrated development. In Italy, the reform of the Structural Funds at the end of the 1980s establishing the "Integrated Mediterranean Programmes" coincided with the national definition of an all-encompassing, integrated programme. In contrast, for Spain, Portugal and Ireland, it was the LEADER I programme that set the stage for a new rural policy.

In the past five years, changes in organisation have occurred in nearly all the Member States of the European Union. These correspond to a willingness to put in place more integrated actions, often under the leadership of a coordinating body, and to encourage partnerships through greater involvement of the private sector or the local community. Interesting plans of action are at work in particular in Castile-La Mancha, Groningen, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Nonetheless, while there is a growing tendency towards a rapprochement between the beneficiaries and the bodies in charge to better adapt the measures to local needs, the management of rural policies remains true to the general organisation of the States.

In highly decentralised countries, the regional level often has a tremendous amount of autonomy with regard to strategic orientation and implementation.

In Germany, each Land decides, which explains the major differences from one region to another, for example between Hessen and Lower Saxony where neither rural development themes nor operating methods are similar. The freedom accorded by the central government to the Belgian regions and the Spanish autonomous communities is less, since they have to comply with the general guidelines defined at national level.

In the more centralised countries, national ministers remain the main coordinators, like in France, Greece or Portugal. However, situations in between these two extremes are the most frequent. In Austria or Finland, the central government acts in concert with the regional and local authorities and responsibilities are shared. With the generalisation of the global grant systems, modelled after the "bloktilskud" initiated in Denmark, there is more financial autonomy.

The political goals themselves reflect the national or regional cultural tendencies but also government orientations. Thus, the full range of policies is represented: policies to offset handicaps in the ultra-peripheral islands and border regions of the Union, particularly those situated along the Iron Curtain, policies to reform intensive farming practices in Belgium, Drenthe, Brittany and Upper Austria, policies to protect the environment or natural areas in Cantabria, Calabria, Flevoland, Salzburg and Vorarlberg, spatial planning or renewed planning policies in Portugal, Greece and the new German Länder, policies to develop food products and crafts in Friesland, the Community of Madrid, the Canaries, the Abruzzi and Burgenland.

As is the case for the other economic development policies, there are two roughly opposing visions for the future of these areas. The first view is that the rural world has the autonomous capacity to revive itself, using contractual instruments similar to those in France and Sweden. This view often coincides with a more inward- looking strategy centred on the quality of life and training of the local people, the mobilisation of local players, the creation of jobs for the unemployed. This is a strategy frequently found in Denmark, Belgium, the northern regions of Italy and in Luxembourg.

The second view is more outward looking and tends to focus on importing modernity, although mobilising the local community and rural players is still considered important. It takes the form of economic development programmes for tertiary activities (tourism, cultural heritage, information technologies) or primary activities (agriculture, food industry, fisheries), the marketing and improved quality of agricultural products and crafts. This approach is characteristic of the highly agricultural regions of Spain (Murcia, Andalusia, Galicia, Castile-La Mancha, Asturias), the Mezzogiorno in Italy and the Arctic regions of Finland.

These differences naturally reflect the region's cultural and social context. Indeed while almost all rural areas are suffering from an ageing population, the problems differ according to the exact makeup of the population: sometimes farmers have more than one activity like in Austria and Luxembourg; or they are highly trained professionals like in Denmark, Belgium, Picardy and Alsace; however, this category of the population may be particularly disadvantaged like in Alentejo (Portugal), Galicia (Spain), Apulia (Italy) or Epirus (Greece).


Innovation in rural areas

By pursuing an innovation objective, the LEADER Community Initiative programme has opened up new windows for and to the rural world. The programme has enlisted the capacity of the countryside to modernise and invent, and in return it has brought existing experiences into the spotlight. LEADER has enabled the outside world to discover rapidly changing areas. In practice, rural innovation has just as much to do with territorial management and facilitation techniques as it does with the content of programmes. It propels us into a third, cultural and political dimension, that of European integration.

In terms of methodology, LEADER has unquestionably helped spread a particular type of facilitation and rural development strategy, based on seven major components: enhancing the local potential, the establishment of a territorial strategy, the bottom-up approach, the decentralised and complete management of funding, the integrated or multisectoral approach, the horizontal and private-public partnership and networking. In the wake of LEADER I, Ireland has turned rural development into an instrument for developing citizenship and modernising politics. Nonetheless, in countries that already had such methods - Austria being the best example -, the innovation introduced by LEADER has been more limited. Currently, only those countries, indeed regions, with a tradition of social conflict or where the State is often considered the final arbitrator, have not succeeded in diversifying the partnerships and making them effective.

In countries that already had a rural development policy, LEADER often intervened to fill any gaps or improve what already existed. Thus, in the Nordic countries the local action groups (LAGs) adopted very targeted themes for their action programmes, such as equal opportunity for men and women in Sweden, or young people and women in Finland. For the other Member States, the LAGs often had horizontal strategies for economic and social development with strong community involvement.

Given the assets and handicaps specific to each area, a broad spectrum of strategies was conducted by the European LAGs. Among these, some themes were more frequent than others:

  • improvement of living conditions through the development of local services in France, Sweden, Finland and Austria, the strengthening and reorganisation of public services in Italy, Great Britain (because Northern Ireland has remained well served) and Greece, the modernisation and renovation of villages in Germany, Denmark and Italy;

  • protection of the environment in Sweden, Germany, Denmark, Spain, Luxembourg, Netherlands and Italy;

  • agricultural diversification and the development of organic crops in Italy, Finland, Ireland and Austria;

  • agri-tourism, either for a local customer base in Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, France and the Netherlands or for foreign visitors in Finland, France, Scotland and Ireland;

  • higher disposable income for rural people, either through agricultural diversification and the development of food products in Ireland, Greece, Spain and Portugal, or through the development of new industrial or tertiary economic activities in Greece, France, Italy, Ireland and Spain.

The way in which LEADER was implemented also mirrors how the public authorities and citizens in individual Member States feel about European integration.

On the whole, the largest countries - France, the United Kingdom and Germany - did little to apply the precepts of LEADER and to modify their internal organisation to adapt to them. Similarly, in the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Austria and Sweden, the public authorities seem to have deliberately reduced LEADER's opportunities to influence rural areas. This may be due to a traditional mistrust of possible interference by the European Union, or the fact that they were already practising these methods before the introduction of LEADER. In contrast, other highly motivated countries like Spain, Portugal and Ireland have greatly benefited from LEADER and the programme has inspired national programmes for rural development, and in some cases for regional development.

Nonetheless, the situation is not rigidly set, and experience shows that the regions became increasingly engaged in the LEADER dynamic between 1994 and 1999. Like LEADER I and II, LEADER+ (2000-2006) represents not only a tool for rural development but also the ideal instrument for European integration based on the will of the local actors.


        [*] Marjorie Jouen was formerly a member of the Forward Planning Unit of the European Commission. She is currently in charge of research at the studies and research group "Notre Europe" where she specialises in the Common Agricultural Policy, cohesion policies and enlargement of the European Union.


[1] This article served as an
introduction in the "LEADER Rural
Development Atlas"
, LEADER European
Observatory, 2000. Paper version available in
French and English.


source: LEADER Magazine n. 25 - Winter 2000/ 2001

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