The rural exodus has been triggered in Europe since the early decades of the second half of the twentieth century. Many people, especially the younger members of society, continue to migrate to the cities looking for job opportunities, better felicities, and higher wages than in the countryside. Over the years, the exodus to the vibrant urban centers together with the negative natural growth has led to an unstoppable dynamic of population decline in many EU territories, which in addition generate substantial gaps between regions of the same country. As a result, Europe must face today the scenario of demographic deserts threatening throughout the ‘old continent’.
The European Commission report on poverty in rural areas identified the exodus and aging problem, the remoteness, the lack of education facilities and the labor market issues (such a lower employment rates and seasonal work) as the four main factors to determine the risk of poverty and social exclusion. It is not a coincidence that these deficiencies are features of sparsely populated and underpopulated regions. According to a Joint Research Centre report, if the current economic and demographic trends continue, one would expect a growing number of regions to be classified as ‘less developed’.
In Spain, the situation has become particularly extreme in some regions such as Castilla y León and Aragón. “Although in the first decade of the 21st century these provinces gained population in the context of the strong influx of immigrants, since the crisis in 2008, figures in recent years have shown negative growth,” says a report of the Centre for Studies on Depopulation and Development of Rural Areas (CEDDAR).
Montes Universales, for instance, is a region in the northeast of Spain that has been baptized as “the Spanish Lapland.” In Lapland, the northernmost region of Scandinavia, the population density is 1.87 inhabitants per square kilometer, a figure only surpassed by Montes Universales, where the population density is officially 1.63 inhabitants per square kilometer, although other studies point out that the accurate figure would be 0.98.
A social and economic issue both in towns and cities
However, rural depopulation should not be addressed as a purely geographical problem that only affects people in rural areas since there is a strong social and economic component behind the phenomenon that extends to cities as well. To begin with, the direct result of the rural exodus is the overcrowding of the urban centers, which involves problems with transport such as traffic jams and the increase in air pollution, and it also implies housing problems like the increase of speculation and the rent becoming more expensive. These are challenges very difficult to manage and can deeply affect the quality of life in the cities, which is supposed to be higher than in rural areas. For example, rural exodus forces urban centers to cope with the increasing demand for public services and sometimes there is not enough offer and more infrastructures are needed in a short period of time, causing urban planning problems.
Another contradiction that should be noted is the existence of cities, especially in southern Europe, crowded of young people without employment while there are towns and villages in desperate need of employees to work on the land but also to cover public services and to develop the private initiative. The high proportion of elderly people creates additional needs in health and social provision and rural areas need support to cover these needs, especially due to population forecasts: In the case of Spain, according to the Statistics National Institute, the country will have 49 million inhabitants in 2033, of which one in every four will be 65 years old or more.
Making rural areas attractive
Attracting young people will be indispensable to resurrect these regions and therefore, it is essential to find the right approach so urban-rural migration becomes a solution for both parties. On one hand, depopulated areas need entrepreneurs to stimulate the economy and, for that, there are several starting points to do profitable business. The clearest example is the promotion of the natural and cultural heritage of these regions in order to increase tourism and add value to local products. There is an increasing trend of travelers seeking authentic local experiences and unspoiled landscapes that only rural areas can offer.
On the other hand, since the economic crisis in 2008, unemployment has increased in many cities. Urban-rural migration can offer a job opportunity for young people and can also be a solution for families that cannot cope with the rising cost of living in the cities. Many city councils across Europe have already launched different kinds of incentives to repopulate the rural areas, from social housing with low rent for families with children and young people, to tax exemptions and aid for the school canteen and books.
Depopulation as a criterion for receiving EU funds
Rural areas can become places of opportunity, but making the transition requires a large investment. This is why a common strategy and policy within the EU becomes indispensable to fight depopulation, which should not be addressed as a national issue considering that it manifests itself in many territories throughout the continent.
The Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, and the Prime Minister of Portugal, António Costa, have already agreed to establish an “Iberian strategy against depopulation” to deal with this situation that affects to various cross-border regions. But cooperation must go beyond bilateralism if we want it to succeed. In this context, last October the president of the Spanish region, Castilla y León, and coordinator of the Working Group on Depopulation and Aging of the Regional Parliaments of Europe (CALRE), Silvia Clemente, met with the vice president of the European Parliament, Ramón Valcarce, to convey the importance of considering demographic challenge in the upcoming European budgets for 2021- 2027.
Clemente’s working group presented two amendments to establish EU aid for areas with a population density below 12.5 inhabitants per square kilometer or that have suffered an annual decrease in population of more than 1% since 2007. The objective is that, from now on, depopulation and aging are addressed in a “specific and differentiated way” in the distribution of the European Cohesion Fund, a measure that would be of great help to many depopulated regions, inside and outside of Spain.