In an effort to revitalise rural communities and make them more attractive and sustainable, together with MEPs, the European Commission on Tuesday (11 April) launched an EU action called “Smart Villages”.
“We speak about ‘smart cities’, but we don’t speak enough about ‘smart villages’,” Slovenian SLS lawmaker Franc Bogovic (EPP) said. “With modern technologies and new concepts, we want to reinvigorate rural areas, reverse the trend of depopulation and protect people against rural poverty,” he added.
Speaking at the event, Phil Hogan, Commissioner for Agricultural and Rural Communities, said a working group would be launched on smart villages in the European Network for Rural Development aiming to combine the efforts of policymakers, academics and those with practical experience.
“Smart Villages is at the heart about future-proofing our rural and agricultural communities,” Hogan said.
Romanian Commissioner for Regional Policy Corina Cretu addressed that rural towns are often hit the hardest by economic and social change, saying that the development of digitised, efficient rural towns could improve a lot of the people who live there.
“We are all aware that the EU is facing unprecedented challenges: Brexit, the economy, migration, a demographic change, and inequalities within and between EU countries. And rural areas are not immune to it […] quite the contrary maybe,” Cretu emphasised.
“So the question is: what should we do to reverse this situation and offer a better future to our children?” Cretu asked. “In other words: what should we do so that our villages are smart and become powerful engines of a better future?”
To reach this goal, Cretu suggested three specific pillars on which to base the development of smart villages: the concentration of investments in the low-carbon economy, digital development and accessibility; finding the most effective use of available resources, and forming sound partnerships with the public sector, businesses and trade unions, among others.
“The future lies in boosting local development, in making sure EU villages live, grow and progress,” Cretu said.
However, policymakers and farmer organisations have acknowledged the “digital divide” between rural and urban areas.
From the 300 million EU citizens living in rural areas, only 25% are covered by fast or ultra-fast broadband, compared to around 70% coverage in urban areas.
“Broadband access is still lagging behind dramatically in many rural and less densely populated areas of the EU,” European Agricultural Machinery Industry Association (CEMA) Secretary General Ulrich Adam recently told EURACTIV.com.
The European Commission says this phenomenon is “unacceptable”, however, each country and region are responsible for its own timetable for broadband roll-out.
“We are already trying to solve this issue by working closely with our colleagues from the digital single market and regional and urban policy departments,” EU Agriculture and Rural Development Commissioner Phil Hogan told EURACTIV in an interview.
Copa and Cogeca, the organisation of European farmers, said that the development of these so-called smart villages would not only boost the well-being of farmers but would also make farming more attractive to young people and those outside the industry.
“Farmers are not only the first producers of food, they are also the first world exporter of agrifood and they play a crucial role in preserving our natural resources, creating growth and jobs in rural areas and providing an attractive countryside for agri-tourism,” Copa and Cogeca Secretary-General Pekka Pesonen said.
“They are already investing and applying innovative solutions to remain competitive and sustainable in order to produce more efficiently using less resources and to respond to society’s demands,” Pesonen stressed, underlining the need of a toolbox that includes also smart villages, to attract youth and newcomers to the sector.
Precision farming could play a leading role in making EU agriculture more sustainable. But green NGOs claim that the concentration of food production in the hands of the agri-food industry will have catastrophic consequences.
For their part, young farmers do believe that the digitisation of EU farming and rural areas will be a good motivation for young people to return to the farm and approach it as a “real business”.
Alan Jagoe, an Irish farmer who is also President of the European Council of Young Farmers (CEJA), commented, “If we don’t run it as a business if we don’t make a profit, we won’t be farming”.
“Technology is going to make this more appealing to a whole new generation of farmers that never even considered farming before, or considered us but didn’t think that it was, you know, a sexy career choice,” he said.
But they, also, warn about a potential digital divide among generations.Noting that in some countries there are as many farmers aged over the age of 80 as there are under 35, he stressed, “So you can imagine these guys trying to operate a mobile phone, trying to operate the latest new technology of a tractor or a machine—they just can’t do it, and they will actually be left behind.”