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Dr. Franz FISCHLER Member of the European Commission responsible for Agriculture, Rural Development and Fisheries Europe's Rural Areas An invaluable asset for us all - Opening Speech Salzburg European Conference on Rural Development Salzburg, 13 November 2003

Commission Européenne - SPEECH/03/534   13/11/2003

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SPEECH/03/534

Dr. Franz FISCHLER

Member of the European Commission responsible for Agriculture, Rural Development and Fisheries

Europe's Rural Areas An invaluable asset for us all - Opening Speech

Salzburg European Conference on Rural Development

Salzburg, 13 November 2003

Eure Königliche Hoheit, sehr geehrte Minister und Abgeordnete, meine sehr verehrten Damen und Herren!

Guten Morgen und ein herzliches Grüß Gott hier in Salzburg!

Auch wenn ich natürlich nicht ganz unvoreingenommen bin, so kann ich mir doch keine bessere Stadt vorstellen, in der die zweite Europäische Konferenz über ländliche Entwicklung abgehalten werden könnte. Prinz Felipe hat von der beeindruckenden Landschaft, der spektakulären und dramatischen Kulisse, dem reichen und vielfältigen kulturellen Erbe Europas gesprochen - dies alles findet sich hier in Salzburg auf beispielhafte Weise wieder und gibt dieser Konferenz einen wunderbaren Rahmen. Ein herzliches Dankeschön an die österreichische Regierung für ihre Unterstützung bei der Organisation dieser bedeutenden Konferenz.

Meine Damen und Herren!

Es ist ein Privileg für uns alle, zur ländlichen Entwicklung beitragen zu dürfen, wir haben jedoch auch eine große Verantwortung zu tragen. In unseren ländlichen Gebieten ist ein großer Teil unserer Bevölkerung zu Hause, aber auch viel Innovation, Fachwissen sowie ein reiches kulturelles und ökologisches Erbe. All dies ist ein unschätzbares Kapital, aus dem wir großen Nutzen ziehen können.

Aber: das Ganze ist nicht so einfach. Unsere ländlichen Gebiete sind nicht nur ein wertvolles Kapital, sondern auch eine Quelle von Ressourcen, mit denen man vorsichtig umgehen muss und die bereits beträchtlich ausgeschöpft sind. Die Landgebiete stellen, wie Herr Professor Bryden vorhin sagte, eine große und sehr komplexe Herausforderung dar. Gerade wenn eine Landschaft sehr malerisch ist, ist sie in ökologischer Hinsicht oft sehr empfindlich. Die ländliche Bevölkerung mag noch so tüchtig sein, mangelnde Infrastruktur, fehlende Dienstleistungen und unzureichende Vermarktungsmöglichkeiten können sie enorm einschränken. Auch das vielfältige Erbe kann durch Entvölkerung und den Verlust von Fachwissen, das mit den Menschen abwandert, gefährdet sein.

Wir stehen kurz vor der größten Erweiterung, die die Europäische Union je erlebt hat. Das ist eine neue Herausforderung, der wir mit der reformierten Agrarpolitik gerecht werden müssen.

Wir sind hier in Salzburg zusammengekommen, um unsere Erfahrungen in der ländlichen Entwicklung Europas, die wir in den letzten Jahren gemacht haben, zu diskutieren und zu bewerten, und um gemeinsam darüber nachzudenken, was getan werden muss, um die nachhaltige Entwicklung unserer ländlichen Gebiete zu verbessern.

Ladies and Gentleman,

When Agenda 2000 was decided four years ago, we stood at the cradle of what was meant to become one day a full blown EU rural development policy. We are not yet there but we have made progress. The publications included in your conference pack show the quite impressive rural development programming which has been set in place for the 2000-2006 period. Take funding for example. This amounts to over 60 billion Euros for the period, if we include the new Member States, spread over 250 programmes. This amount doubles if we add the national co-financing. So we are talking about significant sums of money already being invested into the EU's rural areas.

But are we getting the most from this money? How successful are we with our policy so far? Professor Bryden has shown us a quite diverse picture of rural realities and I agree with him that much still needs to be done. I am particularly concerned by the fact that in a number of rural areas de-population continues to be an acute problem, linked to low birth and high mortality rates and to out-migration of young people. Fortunately, there are also other rural areas where the population is growing, but sometimes at the cost of profound changes in the social fabric.

I am also concerned by what Professor Bryden has told us about the lack of access to public services, to higher education and to life long learning, about the lack of employment opportunities and, in more general terms, about a lower standard of living. Our network of Central and East European Country experts has recently undertaken work for us highlighting that these problems will be accentuated after enlargement. In a number of rural regions, there are a larger number of children of school age compared to towns and cities. This is often accompanied by a flow of workers back from towns. Both trends put additional pressure on education and training systems. At the same time, the poverty gap is increasing in many rural areas. As the experts conclude, “off-farm employment and alternative income sources will become increasingly decisive for socio-economic well-being in rural areas”.

But while I am seriously concerned about these problems and difficulties, I also believe there are reasons to be encouraged: Encouraged by what has been achieved so far, by the large and growing number of examples of progress and success, and above all by the commitment of individuals and organisations, by women and young people, to making a difference in rural areas, both in the future and current member states.

I have no doubt that we should be optimistic about our rural areas. In our increasingly urbanised societies they play an indispensable role. Their agricultural landscapes and forests are a great asset for Europe. The cultural heritage they represent is a great asset. The people living and working there are a great asset, and the partnerships for rural development, many of whom are represented here today, are also a great asset.

The evidence is there for all to see throughout the EU. We have asked Member States to provide us with examples of their success stories, their best practices in rural development. The response we got is impressive. A first sample will be made available to you at this conference. And once we have gone through all this material it will be put together in a publication. It will give a good indication of the wide range of activities being implemented and of how the money is being used to the benefit of rural areas.

Take for instance the innovative projects involving employment of young people and the introduction of Information Technology in rural areas in Finland. Take the integrated approaches at the farm level in the UK, involving a combination of nature conservation and environmentally friendly production of quality meat products. Or take the agro-tourism projects in Greece, involving traditional olive growing, farm accommodation and traditional cooking.

These are just 3 examples out of many from North to South in very different domains. The field trips organised with the help of the Austrian and German authorities later in the conference will give us a further taste of what rural development means in practice.

Yes, there are many examples of good practice. And, fortunately, there are also a number of rural regions with highly dynamic developments: regions which enjoy not only economic and population growth, but which also achieve significant job creation. Changes in technology, in lifestyles, in consumer expectations offer new opportunities for the development of rural areas.

It would therefore be wrong to equate rural areas automatically with disadvantages in economic development and employment.

Of course, growth raises other problems of sustainability, the encroachment of urban development, the threats to landscape and habitats, the pressures on traditional structures and cultural heritage. But ask anyone living in one of these more dynamic areas, rurality is not a handicap. It is an asset!

We must ensure that growth is strong and sustainable, that local partnerships can build on their local strengths, and that our policy helps rural areas make the best of available opportunities. Such ambitions cannot be left to tomorrow. The future starts today.

And the purpose of having this conference in Salzburg, almost half way through the current programming period, is not only to reflect and take stock of the experiences so far. We also want to look ahead, to decide on the direction we want rural development policy to take, and to do this, we need the input of all key stakeholders.

But if we are to plant the seeds for a sustainable rural Europe, then we need to sift out some of the weeds that risk impeding their growth. We have to consider the “whats” and the “hows” of our rural development policy: firstly, our objectives, what we want to achieve, and secondly, how we want to achieve these objectives, how we put policy into practice. And two of the key issues here are, of course, that of increasing the focus on sustainability, that of making the policy simpler and more effective.

When I talk about what we want to achieve, it is important to remember that we are not starting from scratch. In the previous programming period we had a set of separate instruments, which under Agenda 2000 were brought into a single regulation. In our current policy we have a menu of 22 rural development measures that has grown to 26 after our CAP Reform from which Member States can design their programmes. It is true, in their structure and aims, many of these measures reflect more their history and origins, rather than overarching policy objectives. But they are there and I think we can build on them.

We must also build on the recent decisions regarding the budgetary framework for the CAP. As you know the Brussels summit in 2002 agreed on the financial framework for the CAP - market policies and income support for an enlarged EU till 2013, thereby paving the way for the accession of the candidate countries. And although the total amount of funding for rural development was left open, the European Council expressed itself in favour of maintaining multifunctional agriculture in all rural areas of Europe.

Now, against this background, how are we going to steer the policy towards a more sustainable future?

  • How can we use support for restructuring to increase the competitiveness of the agricultural sector, and boost the economic aspect of sustainability?

  • How can support for land management promote preservation of both the rural environment and the countryside?

  • Finally, can we do more to reinforce the social fabric of rural areas? How, for example, can we improve the quality of life for communities in rural areas? How can we promote diversification into other forms of economic activity? In other words, how can we make sure that the rural dynamo generates its full potential?

It is you the stakeholders, who must tell us whether the objectives and instruments we currently have in place remain relevant in answering these questions in the future context. My personal view is that these three core areas of intervention - competitiveness, environment and the wider rural community - must be at the heart of our approach to sustainable development in rural areas.

Of course there are many other related questions that I hope our speakers and you will raise and discuss over the coming days: Where exactly do we put the priorities for EU co-financing? How do we adapt and improve our rural development toolkit? Do we need a different toolkit in an enlarged EU? How do we take into account questions of solidarity and cohesion? How do we ensure synergies and complementarities with other EU and national policies?

Then there is the question of how we deliver rural development policy.

Here, I believe there is great scope for change in how we do things. Although we have examples of many excellent projects I mentioned a few before I am certain that we can move up a further gear. The challenge lies in increasing the quality of what we do, how we combine measures to deliver real rural development and how we tap into the potential that is there on the ground.

In part this is related to simplification. Many feel, and I think they are right, that our current policy delivery system is sometimes needlessly complicated and inflexible.

We need a new division of roles and responsibilities between the policy actors, in particular the Commission and the Member States. In my view the Commission should be less involved in the detail of the implementation and the day-to-day management of the programmes and engage more in a policy dialogue with the Members States about goals and results. Member States should have greater flexibility, but must also carry more responsibility and be more accountable for the results of the programmes. I am certain that this would also make our programmes more effective.

If we want to increase the funding for rural development, we need to ensure that the extra money translates more easily in to rural development on the ground. So what can we do in concrete terms to redefine the roles and to simplify programming, financial management and control systems?

A particular challenge as regards quality is marrying the more top-down approach of mainstream rural development programming with the bottom-up approach of LEADER. Rural development at the end of the day is about people, of enabling rural actors, farmers and others, to take charge of their own destiny, “owning” the rural development process. - How can we 'ground' our rural development policy? How can we make it not only an instrument for, but also of, our rural communities? How can we ensure an exchange of good ideas and best practices through networking? Helping our rural communities to help themselves to become thriving or 'healthy', in Professor Bryden's words, will be the key to keeping the countryside alive and diverse.

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I should stress that all these concerns and questions are not abstract or academic. Our discussions and ideas matter. Recent decisions on enlargement and reform have reshaped the broader context, and in coming months the Commission will be bringing forward important proposals on future policies.

We have the issue of the new financial perspectives to consider. What should the Union's main policy priorities be, post 2006? And how much money should be allocated to each policy area? This summer's CAP reform agreement has already helped take us a step forward by including a significant shift in funding from market policies to rural development through modulation.

The Commission's 3rd Cohesion report will also address the relationship between rural development and cohesion policy and will set out the main orientations for the future of the Structural Funds in the light of enlargement.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

These are all important decisions that will have a considerable impact on our rural areas. In this respect, I believe that this conference can give a strong positive signal in favour of rural development. It should not only assess what has been achieved so far, but also identify the needs, opportunities and challenges our rural areas in an enlarged Europe will face. And there is no doubt that we will need a sufficient level of funding to meet these challenges.

Just as importantly, the findings of the conference will be an important input for the Commission in preparing its proposals for the post 2006 policy and the successor to the current rural development regulation.

So to conclude, ladies and gentlemen, the Salzburg conference provides us with the chance to make a rural future a reality, inject new thinking, create new opportunities where they've been lost, and secure economic growth in areas that has for too long been considered rich in natural assets, but poor in pocket.

And when I talk about rural development, I am not just talking about making markets, services and opportunities more available to rural people. It is also about making the countryside more accessible to the wider urban public, and here I agree with Prince Felipe when he says that we need to do more to make this possible. In Europe, we are privileged to have such a rich and diverse environment at our fingertips, and privileged to be able to see pieces of our history in the landscape in front of us. This is something that should neither be taken for granted, nor left to visit another time. Urban and rural areas are too often considered poles apart, but when I look at Salzburg the city, and Salzburg the region, I see that the divide is not as great as many think.

“Look after the present, and the future will look after itself” is how the saying goes. But is sustainable development really as simple as this? How do we integrate the many facets and intricacies of our rural areas into a comprehensive rural development policy? How can we preserve these areas without making them antiquated? How can we afford people in rural areas the same number of opportunities as their urban counterparts without compromising the other elements? How can we align our environmental and our economic objectives?

Rural development policy is not just about how farmers manage the countryside. It is not about creating a sort of open air museum. It's about real rural futures for real rural people.

I have taken the liberty of asking many questions and encourage you to work hard and fruitfully in the panels. I look forward very much to the reports of the discussions, the debate and the conclusions tomorrow, which I will hope will send a clear signal about the future of our policy. In short, I hope that this conference will help us to sow the seeds for a sustainable rural future throughout Europe.

Thank you for your attention.


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