“Making rural areas the engines of a sustainable Europe”

On 14 March 2019, the EESC section for Agriculture, Rural Development and the Environment (NAT) and the European Rural Parliament (ERP) arranged a joint conference focusing on rural areas and sustainability.

Pia Prost , the ESIN delegate from Finland’s FÖSS, was looking forward to hearing and discussing ideas on how rural areas together can work for reaching a higher level of sustainability, and also to the plans for the next ERP in Spain in November. However, the afternoon turned out a bit differently than she expected. Here is her report.

The conference

The first part of the conference was chaired by a brilliant Tom Jones of the EESC. It was a call for action to new, incoming legislators to step up the role of rural areas, and the speakers represented different rural networks. A representative for DG Agri presented the reflection paper “Towards a Sustainable Europe by 2030”; a reinvented form of sustainable economic growth can be reached through four points: 1) from linear to circular economy, 2) sustainability from farm to fork, 3) future-proof energy, buildings and mobility and 4) ensuring a socially fair transition. Concerning the legislative proposals for CAP Post 2020, support shall aim to further improve the sustainable development of farming, food and rural areas. Maria Joao Botelho of ELARD stressed that a cut in Leader would definitely send the wrong message to the inhabitants of Europe.                        

The best speech of the day was made by Eamon O´Hara from Ecolise, the European Network for Community-led Initiatives on Climate change and Sustainability. It was short, focused and right on target. He showed the symptoms of a deeper sustainable crisis, and said that empowerment is a political choice. He cited CAN-Europe 2018: “Community energy projects have eight times the benefit to the local economy compared to projects owned by power companies.” They also promote emissions reduction and environmental benefits, awareness raising, participation, resilience and so on. Local projects have a big potential for replication and scale-up, but a local, community-led transition need public support.

The second part of the conference was unfortunately a bit messy, since the first speakers was given too much time. In my opinion, several speakers did not have the right focus either : yet another 20 min of my life has been spent on listening to how complicated Leader is. If this is the biggest problem concerning sustainability – rethink!. Peter Welch from the European Court of Auditors said that we need to move to more performance based CAP, but Guido Castellano of DG Agri asked how we could find indicators to measure results? I would gladly have listened more to Paul Soto (European Network for Rural Development). According to him, we have to put more effort on creating a more enabling environment – changes happen so fast that there is no time to wait for the authorities and new legislations. I would also have listened more to Petri Rinne of the European Rural Parliament, who pointed out that in these times of populism, rural development is one of the few things that both populistic and non-populistic politicians (80%) can agree on – an important unifying factor. Both Rinne and Maria Nikolopoulou, EESC Member, emphasized cooperation and the civil society in their closing remarks.

Sustainable – or not?

Very few of the speakers referred to the reflection paper “Towards a Sustainable Europe by 2030” or the Sustainable Development Goals. As most times, more focus was put on money than on sustainability. I also thought conferences that leave no time for discussions, questions or dialogue died out during the last century, but that does not seem to be the case!

Speaking of sustainability, more particularly Sustainability Development Goal (SDG) 5 – 10 out of 11 main speakers were men. Note to self – don´t ever fly to a short conference again (SDG 13), if the travel doesn´t also include other meetings with real people.”

Islands: nobody mentioned them!

“No one said anything about islands” remarked Pia. ” Well, Juan-Andres Gutierrez from Euromontana said that they also were part of the Smart Islands Declaration so the word island was pronounced once. I had prepared for a comment during the discussions, but there was no time for remarks, not to mention discussions.

But if there had been time, there was a few things I would have liked to say. Thinking of sustainable development, people living in rural areas and on islands are often living in a circular economy already (SDG 11). Or still – depending on how you like to put it. On islands, with clearly defined borders, it is often the only choice. Why not use it as a strength?

Islands can have an important role for the general understanding of the problems in rural areas (SDG 16). Many Europeans are part-time inhabitants of islands, or spend their holidays on them. And, referring to the speech of O´Hara, the part-time inhabitants are often involved in the community projects of the islands.

Islands are already being used as testbeds for new clean energy solutions (SDG 7) and for water saving (SDG 6).

Small islands have sustainable small-scale farming (SDG 15) and produce clean food (SDG 2) with a low amount of packaging (SDG 12) and so on.

Good effort, but inconclusive conclusion!

Listening to especially the second “high level” part of the conference, you didn’t get the impression that the rural areas of Europe can serve as engine for a sustainable Europe. But we know they do. And we should use the fact that both villages and islands can serve as good examples for reaching the Sustainable Development Goals of Agenda 2030. Where should we do this? For example, at the next European Rural Parliament!

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