Europe’s population composition has been and continues to experience many changes, such as in terms of the region of origin, educational attainment, family forms, mental and physical health and age structure. How do decision-makers from the municipal to the European level perceive these changes and how can we build an inclusive environment and social cohesion in the face of growing population diversity? On Tuesday, 5 April 2022, Population Europe hosted an online high-level expert meeting to review current demographic challenges and opportunities in Europe and the most important agenda topics aimed at creating more resilient, connected, diverse and prosperous European regions. The two-hour meeting was organised within the framework of the project ‘Regional population diversity and social cohesion in the local context’ funded by Stiftung Mercator. Leading experts from science, politics and society were invited to exchange views and experiences on two concrete questions:
- What are the key issues that are currently a challenge for rural and underserved areas in terms of population development?
- Are regions experiencing strong population decline going through similar processes and can they be compared?
Four pivot outcomes came from the engaging discussions, which will lead the policy dialogue in the next meetings: (1) Population decline and ageing are two outstanding demographic issues affecting many European rural areas and smaller urban areas; (2) Economic structure and provision of services are the bread and butter issues to adapt to demographic changes and challenges; (3) In the face of common obstacles, the heterogeneity of European regions and their demographic diversity require place-based solutions for rural and underserved areas; and (4) In this context, the role of the local administrations and municipalities gains importance, particularly in terms of being open to new ideas, participation of community members and collaboration.
Perspectives from European Commission
In her keynote, Deša Srsen, Deputy Head of Cabinet, Cabinet of Vice-President Dubravka Šuica, expressed that the EU’s Long-Term Vision for Rural Areas was able to create new momentum for rural areas by putting them under the spotlight and giving them new life that goes beyond agriculture. At its earliest stage, the vision is a strong sign of the commitment of the Commission to involve rural citizens in the decision-making process and not leave them behind in the green, digital and demographic transitions. Ms. Srsen highlighted the challenge of population shrinkage and ageing as acute phenomena in some European rural areas and European regions in general. To face the challenges caused by population decline and ageing, the Commission sets the focus on making rural areas connected, prosperous, resilient and attractive, while the green and digital transitions offer new mitigation and even adaptation opportunities like the ‘smart shrinking’: ensuring the quality of life and services despite of possible population decline. Despite the common challenges of population decline and ageing, the diversity of rural areas in terms of economic development and living conditions makes it hard to compare European rural regions and make a one size for all solution. The Commission is also working on brain drain that it intends to present by December, with the ambition of creating conditions to make leaving an area an option, not a necessity.
Key demographic issues and social challenges
After the keynote, participants exchanged perspectives on key demographic issues and challenges faced by rural areas and underserved regions and discussed the similarities and dissimilarities of European regions experiencing population decline:
Experts highlighted the changing age structure and inequalities of ageing in rural and underserved areas. In depopulating areas, while the percentage of the working population is decreasing, the proportion of people needing care is increasing. This demographic trend heightens the inequalities between rural and urban areas, for example, in access to care and health services. It also contributes to rural and smaller urban areas getting caught in a vicious cycle in regards to the provision of services and maintenance of infrastructure in general: as more working-age individuals leave an area, fewer revenues become available for public administrations to provide services and maintain infrastructure (schools, sport and care facilities etc.) as the distribution of resources from central governments depends on the size of populations. In addition, in many cases, the private sector does not step into these depopulating underserved communities. This leads to the fact that local administration and public sectors are often the sole provider of transport, health care, childcare and even banking with limited resources available. As a result, local policymakers and communities have to make difficult decisions, such as reducing the number and quality of essential services that make inequalities in access to services more acute.
How can communities overcome the problems in the provision of services? Experts in the meeting emphasised three vital components: volunteering, digitalisation as well as cooperation and collaboration between municipalities and local administrations. For certain services, especially in care and in social and cultural activities, volunteering can help communities to ease some difficulties. However, for a community to increase the rate of volunteering activities and members, the basic infrastructure allowing mobility and social places to get the community together is a necessity. Digitalisation is seen as a means to meet the increasing demand for care and health care needs since it might reduce the need for patients and health professionals to travel long distances and attend in-person appointments in many cases. Moreover, it can help senior citizens to live independently and continue to be active members of society. Nonetheless, the digitalisation in health care should consider the existing digital divide between older and younger as well as between rural and urban areas. In addition to the internet and smartphone usage, adaptation to technological advancements is determined by socio-demographic factors like age and education. Furthermore, even in more prosperous Central European regions, rural areas still face challenges in terms of digital infrastructure that make these areas less attractive for young people to settle or migrate.
Digital and physical accessibility: Keeping the communities connected
In general, digitalisation is seen as a means to overcome further challenges that rural and underserved areas are facing: on the one hand, it can help in mitigating emigration while also attracting newcomers to depopulated areas. On the other hand, it may help to intensify social networks in remote and rural regions. Starting as an emergency measure during the COVID-19 pandemic, remote working can be a potential for the development of rural areas and smaller cities losing population mostly because of limited employment and business opportunities. Digital working and learning opportunities might stop emigration and attract newcomers to these areas, which can play a positive role in the regional development process. In the opinion of participants, it is desirable, however, that newcomers truly contribute to the development of these regions, for example by bringing fresh ideas and initiatives for local economic developments as well as for social cohesion. Besides the willingness of the newcomers to actively join the local community, instruments of social cohesion like social places, policies in the field of social inclusion and openness by the local community are key factors to meet the demographic diversity and heterogeneity of lifestyles that newcomers from urban areas can bring with them. It is an open-ended question of how the digital style of working will affect commuting patterns since many dwellers of rural and suburban areas depend on working in urban centres. In other words, how should the local administrations and communities negotiate the social benefits of the changing working conditions?
Another key factor for depopulating areas is the need for cooperation and collaboration between municipalities and local administrations to secure services and infrastructure. Despite the geographic and spatial differences (level of centralisation, altitude etc.), local administrations can work together in terms of service integration and service networks. To a great extent, the readiness for a collaboration depends on the level of countries’ decentralisation, their culture of collaboration and on active policymaking. Moreover, tackling demographic challenges and their effects requires collaboration between multiple sectors of government at local, national and European levels, and it is imperative to bring actors from different fields and departments together to talk about the challenges and to work together. For stronger ties between community members and an enduring sense of belonging, as repeated in our discussions, local governments should be open to citizen participation and have inclusive decision-making processes.
Economic structure: Bread and butter issue
Along with the provision of services and infrastructure, economic development and structure are at the top of the list to mitigate and adapt to demographic trends. Economy and provision of services are inseparable factors for people to decide to settle down and live in rural areas and smaller urban areas since economic activity lies at the centre of several service interlinks: if a region is economically active and employment chances are high, there are childcare and health facilities, more investment in infrastructure and social and cultural activities. To avoid territorial inequalities and socio-demographic divides within countries and regions, experts in the meeting agreed on the importance of boosting territorial capital and diversifying economic activities in regions. What is clear is that rural areas are more than just agriculture. In addition to new opportunities in tourism and green economies, allowing industries and companies to grow in rural areas can make these places demographically more resilient.
While labour and skill shortages are common problems for most member states, there are two main means to meet the labour demand and future skills needs: immigration and mobilizing non-working residents. Depopulating rural and underserved areas are often hit hard by the emigration of the working-age population. Likewise, they are less attractive for a new workforce to move in, where inactivity rates are higher in these regions. But for inactive groups to enter the labour market, one must consider both the needs of the labour market and social issues like gender inequalities as well as access to education and skill training. For instance, in regions where the economy is based on male-dominated industries like mining or agriculture, the decision-making and the labour market tend to be led by men – which results in a less gender inclusive decision-making process. In addition to promoting employment among inactive groups, industries should adopt measures to promote job stability among their employees, while local governments should help and promote small businesses and entrepreneurs from disadvantaged or vulnerable groups through mentorship opportunities, career guidance and diversity programs. Also, public-private partnerships should support the education and school systems to develop further training opportunities in consideration of the specific needs of the local labour markets.
Tailor-made solutions: common challenges and diverse approaches
When it comes to solutions to the previously mentioned challenges, the experts in our meeting agreed that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ recipe. Instead, they tended to agree on the need for tailor-made and place-based solutions. Even if regions face the same problems (population decline, ageing, deindustrialisation), similar challenges hit the communities in different ways and at different levels. In addition, within the same regions or areas, one can discover hidden inequalities in access to services, differences in productivity rates, opposite demographic changes and ageing structures or youth emigration percentages when comparing neighbourhoods. In the example of emigration, the nature of population movements can have diverse effects on the sending communities. As being different from permanent leave and emigration, circular migration can contribute to local development in the form of investments in housing, local economy and active participation in local politics thanks to the circularity of skills and economic, human and social capitals. In the case of circular migration, the initiatives of local administrations and municipalities play a central role if sending communities can benefit from the economic and social potential that migrants can bring.
The conclusion of the meeting was that one can always learn from success stories but should always reflect on the reproducibility of policies and initiatives in their own context and include the local community in this exercise. Accordingly, Regional population diversity and social cohesion in the local context will bring communities and experts from science, policy and civil society together to exchange about common population issues and different strategies for European regions. The expert meeting underlined the essential need to better understand the latest population dynamics and movements in conjunction with changing demographic and diversity patterns. Starting in October 2022, the participants of the next five online public meetings will discuss social cohesion in terms of solidarity and belonging, instruments of social cohesion, activation of community and welcoming demographic diversity.
- Daria Akhutina, Senior Adviser for Sustainable & Prosperous Region, The Council of the Baltic Sea States
- Federico Benassi, Researcher and expert on Spatial Demography
- Blandine Camus, Communication & Policy Officer, European Association of Mountain Areas (Euromontana)
- Mags Currie, Senior Researcher at Social, Economic and Geographical Sciences Department, James Hutton Institute
- Sebastian Klüsener, Research Director on Demographic Change and Longevity, German Federal Institute for Population Research
- Veronika Korčeková, Policy Analyst, The European Network for Rural Development (ENRD)
- Anna Kwiatkiewicz-Mory, Senior Adviser at Social Affairs Department, Bussiness Europe
- Antonio López-Gay, Senior Researcher at the Center for Demographic Studies, Autonomous University of Barcelona
- Daniel Meltzian, Head of Division „European Spatial Development Policy, Territorial Cohesion“, German Federal Ministry of the Interior, Building and Community
- Sylwia Michalska, Senior Researcher at Institute of Rural and Agricultural Development, Polish Academy of Sciences
- Marina Monaco, Policy Advisor, European Trade Unions Confederation (ETUC)
- Ana Isabel Moreno Monroy, Policy Analyst, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
- Claudia Neu, Professor and Chair of Sociology of Rural Areas, Georg August University of Göttingen
- Elodie Salle, Senior Consultant and Project Manager of Sustainable Hub to Engage into Rural Policies with Actors (SHERPA), ECORYS
- Michael Schmitz, Chair of the Expert Group on Cohesion Policy, Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR)
- Johanna Schütz, Senior Researcher at Bayerisches Forschungszentrum Pflege Digital, Kempten University of Applied Sciences
- Deša Srsen, Deputy Head of Cabinet, Cabinet of Vice-President Dubravka Šuica, European Commission
- Dario Tarchi, Acting Head of Unit “Demography, Migration and Governance”, Joint Research Center (JRC)
- Magda Ulceluse, Postdoctoral Researcher at Faculty of Spatial Sciences, University of Groningen
- Bock, A. and Krzysztofowicz, M. (2021). Scenarios for EU Rural Areas 2040, Joint Research Center.
- Euromontana (2022), Being young in a mountain area: mountain youth’s needs in 2022 and aspirations for the future. Report.
- European Commission – Eurostat and DG for Regional and Urban Policy – ILO, FAO, OECD, UN-Habitat, World Bank (2020). A recommendation on the method to delineate cities, urban and rural areas for international statistical comparisons.
- European Network for Rural Development (2020). Access to Services. Factsheet.
- European Commission (2022). Cohesion in Europe towards 2050: Eighth report on economic, social and territorial cohesion, European Commission.
- Redlich S. and Scholze J. (2022). Implementation of the Territorial Agenda 2030 Pilot action “A future for lagging regions: Fostering the implementation of spatial strategies”, Federal Ministry for Housing, Urban Development and Building (BMWSB)
The project “Regional population diversity and social cohesion in local contexts” is funded by Stiftung Mercator.