Secure and sustainable access to digital infrastructure, skills and services are vital to accelerate the development of Europe's rural areas and of so-called 'smart' villages in particular. This was the main message of the demands of the opinion on "Targets and tools for a smart rural Europe" by Radim SRŠEŇ, Mayor of the Municipality of Dolní Studénky, adopted during the European Committee of the Regions plenary session on Wednesday.
Rural areas cover 80% of the territory of the EU and are home to 30% of the EU population. While they share many of the challenges faced by urban areas, they also have many that are unique or more serious – low levels of digitalisation, limited access to and development of infrastructure and services, etc. – which have a direct impact on the attractiveness of these regions to business. These challenges continue to affect the economic development of rural areas and thus the quality of life of the people living there.
In June 2021, the European Commission put forward a Long-term vision for the EU's rural areas 2040 (LTVRA), that aims to rise to these challenges and make rural areas "stronger, connected, resilient and prosperous". Based squarely on the emerging opportunities of the EU's green and digital transitions, the aim of the Commission's proposal is to reduce the imbalances between the urban and rural regions of the EU by stimulating economic growth, creating new opportunities to attract innovative businesses, ensuring access to quality jobs, promoting new and better skills and ensuring better infrastructure and services in rural areas.
The CoR's rapporteur on the Long-term vision, Radim SRŠEŇ (CZ,EPP), Mayor of the Municipality of Dolní Studénky, said: "Every crisis brings an opportunity and right now we have the unique opportunity to transform rural areas much faster than we could have imagined several years ago. We have the policies, we have the tools, we have the data and we have the technologies to overcome the rural-urban divide. What we need now is a place-based holistic approach to bring tailor-made solutions for every region. What we need, in short, is smart rural development. We need to make sure that every EU policy and all possible resources, including cohesion funds and Next Generation EU funds, are put to good work to ensure the ambitions of the Long-term vision for rural areas can be met. This will mean clearly defining targets, goals and quality of life standards."
The opinion, adopted at the CoR's plenary session on 15 March, stresses that successfully implementing the LTVRA will mean making better use of the smart village concept and partnership tools such as Links between activities for the development of rural economy (LEADER) and Community-Led Local Development (CLLD). The smart village concept requires cooperation with other communities and the adoption of smart solutions in both the private and public sectors to improve the quality of life of people living in these regions. The opinion adds that support for local production and consumption and cooperation among municipalities to solve issues of common interest and to create decision-making process based on open data and transparency are also key to bridging the development divide between rural and urban regions.
In their recommendations, EU local and regional leaders highlighted the need for all EU policies to promote the attractiveness of rural areas and protect the quality of life of the rural population by ensuring equal access to basic services and opportunities. In particular, CoR members called for a clear focus on the need to foster the development of small and medium-sized businesses and start-ups in rural areas, as well as for better access to quality health and social care. Secure and sustainable access to digital infrastructure is a vital element in order to accelerate the digitalisation of business and services and enhancing the digital skills and training opportunities of people living in rural areas, the CoR opinion noted, welcoming the inclusion of rural areas in the European Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles for the Digital Decade.
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