EU Action for Smart Villages

Prime Minister, Commissioner, MEPs, elected representatives, ladies and gentlemen, it's a great pleasure to be here in the beautiful Bled region – I spent one week here on holidays about 15 years ago.

I can't think of a nicer place to hold this very important conference.

I am often asked: what is a smart village? In my view, Smart Villages are essentially about people – they are about rural communities taking the initiative to find practical solutions to challenges and make the most of new opportunities. Digital solutions can provide many such new opportunities but smart also mean developing new co-operations and alliances – thinking outside the box and charting your own path to prosperity.

The Smart Villages initiative was launched almost exactly one year ago, so this is an excellent opportunity to take stock of where we stand.

Let me start by thanking MEP Bogovic and Szanyi for their hard work and dedication – they have been at the centre of driving this concept forward. And it is definitely going forward!

We have started work on a pilot project – the idea is to develop a model for smart eco-social villages which rural communities can use as a template to improve their situation.

We expect to have the first results before the summer and a full model by the summer of next year.

Meanwhile, thanks to MEP Bogovic and MEP Szanyi, the European Parliament has allocated €3.3 million for a preparatory action which we will launch next year. Here the idea is to provide support for the development of 10 Smart Villages throughout the EU. 

We are also running a thematic working group on Smart Villages as part of the rural network (ENRD). There has been a huge interest in this work from many stakeholder and local authorities – a clear sign that there is a need and an appetite for smart villages in our rural areas.

This is the important ground work that needs to be done to get more Smart Villages on the map.

But we can't stop there. Because as you all know if we really want to see a large roll out of smart villages – we need to talk about billions of euro rather than millions of euro.

Smart villages begins with local people coming together to develop a strategy around local assets and aspirations and we need to invest in these people, their ideas and the much needed infrastructure and capacity building.

So, what do we as policy makers need to do?

The first step is clear: we need better broadband, connectivity and infrastructure. Despite the great efforts to date, there is still a serious digital gap between rural and urban areas. According to our most recent figures only 40% of rural households have access to fast broadband while more than 75% of urban households do.

This is a real obstacle for the development of new businesses, jobs and prosperity in rural areas.

And I would add that the provision of high-speed internet to all rural territories is also vital for the management and control of the Common Agricultural Policy.

To help close this gap, around €6 billion (EAFRD and ERDF) in funding is available to finance broadband roll-out as well as other digital infrastructures, especially in rural and peripheral areas. The estimated contribution from EAFRD is almost 1 billion. This will benefit around 18 million rural citizens.

At the same time, the Commission is implementing an "Action plan for Rural Broadband", aiming to help broadband rollout in rural and remote areas.

The second step is to use this improved connectivity to improve the quality of life and standard of living in rural areas: this means better access to jobs and improved services.

In the agri-food space, digital platforms can foster the use and roll out of precision farming and other modern technologies, but they can also create new local markets to help small and medium sized farmers get a better price for their product. We can use digital platforms to access global markets – you can sit in the Savinjan Alps and supply services to Silicon Valley.

We can also use digital technology and the data economy to deliver new services to our rural citizens – such as e-health; online education; mobility solutions; local energy production and much more. We can improve the resource efficiency of farming – as well as improving health and safety for the farmer.

So while there is a lot of potential, we need to invest to make this potential into reality; we need to invest in people, in ideas and in businesses; in local communities and in the surrounding countryside. We need to support digital infrastructure but we also need to empower rural citizens to develop on and off-line solutions that strengthen rural vitality – through social innovation and smart specialisation.

Smart Villages was highlighted in the Communication on the future of the CAP – a sign that we are committed to supporting the development and digitisation of our rural areas as part of a wider approach covering all EU funds and instruments.

Slovenia's RDP is already allocating around 8% of funds to "Smart Villages" type actions: investing in innovation and cooperation, in LEADER, and providing broadband to around 27 000 households in rural areas.

I am particularly happy to see that Slovenia has submitted an amendment to its Rural Development Programme, aiming to introduce financial instruments for investment in the processing and marketing of agricultural products, in rural business projects and in forestry. 

The proposal for this change is in the final stage of the adoption process. If all goes to plan, money should be coming on stream for projects around early 2019.

Thank you all for being here today, and I look forward to continuing to work closely with you to keep the Smart Villages plan moving forward. Thank you.