Nobody lives here! Rural depopulation in the EU and citizen engagement in “emptied Spain”

27 July 2020 /

Reading time: 3 min.

Depopulation is the new normal in rural regions all across Europe. The quality of life that a village offers does not seem to outweigh structural problems caused by demographic change and years and years of institutional abandonment. While governments at all levels try to take action, citizen engagement is becoming increasingly popular. But is this enough to reverse the trend? Is rural depopulation one of the main challenges that Europe will have to face this decade ?

Population and depopulation

Europeans live in urban areas; specifically, 40% of Europeans live in cities and 32% in suburbs and towns, whereas only 28% live in rural regions. In thirty years’ time, half of the population of the European Union (EU) will live in an urban environment while rural zones are planned to have eight million fewer inhabitants. Rural exodus is, however, not a new phenomenon. It has been happening in Europe since the second half of the 20th century: people move to the city to look for economic prosperity, propelling depopulation in rural areas.

The decrease in the number of inhabitants of a territory is caused in almost all EU regions by the trend of ageing population. Migration has the potential to improve demographic balance; however, it is currently not able to reverse this issue because of the concentration of migrants in the urban centres of the wealthiest European regions. While this generally further expands the urban-rural divide, there are major differences between East and West, North and South, and within different regions of the Member States.

Rural depopulation: the new normal

Depopulation is not something exclusive to rural regions. Nonetheless, it especially affects rural areas as it can lead to dramatic outcomes – most notably their disappearance. The phenomenon exists all over Europe, but it affects mostly the North, the South, and the East: Nordic countries such as Finland and Sweden (with several areas with a population density of only 4.9 inhabitants per square kilometre), Spain and Portugal, and – surprisingly enough – some regions of East Germany have a high proportion of shrinking regions.

With characteristics like low population density, geographical – and institutional – isolation, precarious economies based on farming and low levels of income, some rural regions consider depopulation as their new reality. The benefits that they enjoy of lower living costs, more space, less pollution and, in general, a better quality of life are outweighed by several dramatic structural problems: fewer job opportunities, lack of infrastructure and a modern transport network, degradation of basic public services like schools and healthcare facilities, absence of entertainment options and cultural offering, and so on.

Rural depopulation is perpetuated due to a “vicious circle of decline”: the people who emigrate from rural regions looking for opportunities and prosperity are generally young. This decreases birth rates, which in turn creates negative natural growth, an ageing population, and lower economic dynamism. In addition, there are more people at risk of poverty or social exclusion than in urban zones (especially in Eastern and Southern Member States). Thus, demographic decline is almost always accompanied by economic decline.

Finally, there are more women than men leaving rural regions because the employment options are even more limited for them, which creates a phenomenon known by researchers as “rural masculinisation” that further exacerbates the vicious circle.

What can governments do about the issue?

Experts agree that the action of the market is not enough to find solutions, and government-led policy interventions are needed to mitigate demographic change. They stress that the phenomenon of depopulation cannot be fully stopped but only mitigated because it is a structural and complex problem. Consequently, the chosen policy response must be holistic and take into account all the factors and specificities of depopulation; a “one-size-fits-all” approach for all regions affected would not be effective.

There is a huge number of public instruments for rural development at all government levels, but in general they are dispersed and ineffective. They are based on approaches that only try to reverse depopulation by returning to growth. What is often missing: sustainable alternatives of managing or adapting to the consequences of depopulation, turning the issue into an opportunity to create a new greener, smaller and more innovative model of growth that makes the most of the local potential.

At the European Union level, the approach to rural policy has been focused on agricultural production and has not taken into account the different situations of the Member States and regions. Thus, there has been almost no investment on infrastructure or other alternative action on the subject. Certainly, when looking at policy action on rural depopulation, one can easily appreciate the reigning fragmentation: there have been several resolutions of the European Parliament on the matter (2017, 2018), proposals of the Commission on cohesion policy, a European Conference on Rural Development in 2016, etc., but little concrete action. As declared by the European Committee of the Regions (CoR): “the EU’s response is limited and poorly developed”.

Academic studies also highlight the need for economic investment and an effective distribution of funds. The European Union economically supports regions through its five Structural and Investment funds and with the Common Agricultural Policy, which allocates money to rural development. The EU also manages and partially funds grants for specific projects through programmes like Erasmus+, Horizon 2020, and its predecessor, Horizon Europe. However, the CoR also deems them as inefficient and underdeveloped.

Citizen engagement: experiences from Spain

Traditionally ignored on the part of the authorities, rural depopulation is increasingly present on the political agenda and in the media largely because of the action by civil society. Citizen engagement has been and still is crucial to make the reality of these rural areas visible, and institutions such as the European Economic and Social Committee demand more access for civil society to the European decision-making process regarding this specific topic.

A few examples can be found in Spain, a country with a population density of 92 people per square kilometre (the average of the EU pre-Brexit is of 177), but with huge regional disparities between the urban and the rural environments. The case of Spain is indeed very particular because 90% of the population lives in 12% of the territory; there are more areas with over 40,000 inhabitants per km2 than in any other EU MS, but 80% of the national territory is a huge rural zone known as “la España vaciada” (meaning “emptied Spain” – “emptied” and not “empty” because it has not been a voluntary process).

Indeed, rural depopulation is extreme in some regions such as Castile and León (in north-western Spain) and Aragon (in the north-east), where almost 90% and 80% of villages respectively had less population in 2018 than they did in 1998. More specifically, two provinces out of these regions have the lowest population index of Spain: Soria, in Castile and León, has 8.6 inhabitants per km2, while Teruel, in Aragon, 9.1.

Both provinces have experiences of strong civil society organisations and citizen engagement. In Soria, the citizen platform Soria ¡Ya! (Soria Now!) has been fighting since 2001 for the survival of the province, demanding for its citizens to have the same opportunities as everyone else in urban Spain. They also call for tailored measures for the town and ask for a special treatment of depopulated areas on the part of national and European authorities, for instance, positive fiscal discrimination for companies to attract investment.

Teruel Existe (Teruel Exists) is another citizen platform that has been active in Teruel since 1999, very frequently demonstrating against institutional abandonment. In November 2019 they became a “agrupación de electores” (“grouping of electors”: a group of citizens running for Parliament without being a political party) and gained one member of the national parliament and two senators. They claim fair treatment for Teruel but also demand measures against depopulation for all “emptied Spain”.

Teruel Existe and Soria ¡Ya! organised a huge demonstration in Madrid in March 2019 where 85 grassroots organisations and between 50,000 and 100,000 people participated. It attracted huge political and media attention and it was decisive to raise awareness and to establish rural depopulation as a problem in Spain.

Indeed, it is crucial that rural depopulation is taken seriously as it can lead to the disappearance of entire regions. Projections forecast that the median age of the European population will do nothing but increase, and that the problem of rural depopulation will become greater in the next years if there is not more public action on this issue. Rural and urban areas are not competitors but depend on each other: we must create a model that make them coexist in a fairer and more sustainable way, especially when life in the cities is becoming increasingly difficult because of overpopulation, high housing costs, and pollution. The mitigation of depopulation and transition to life in the villages may be a difficult and long road, but if all actors – public and private – do their part, the trends could be reversed and the benefits multiplied. We can certainly use the opportunity that dealing with demographic change gives us to build greener and more just societies that do not leave anyone behind.

Lucía Zurro Sánchez-Colomer is a second-year Master student at the Institute for European Studies of the ULB.

This article has originally been published in our print magazine #32 (June 2020). Find the entire magazine here

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