European Rural Demographic Strategies: Foreshadowing Post-Lisbon Rural Development Policy?
1.1. EU Policy, from Less Favoured Areas to Smart Villages
1.2. Framing the Basic Concepts of Rural Shrinking
1.3. What Recent Demographic Research Tells Us about Rural Shrinking
1.3.1. Migration Processes Are Not Constant through Time
1.3.2. Understanding Individual Migration Behaviour and Motives
“Understanding the staying processes of these young people can lead to improved policy interventions to help stem the ongoing rural brain drain and ageing of rural populations. Inadvertently, policymakers may view staying from a mobility perspective: Stayers have “failed to leave” or “been left behind.” Young adults are not always recognized as a rural asset that should be retained. Yet many are highly educated, possess a strong sense of belonging based on familial ties that go back several generations, and exert considerable human agency to stay. Such young people are arguably the lifeline of many rural communities” (p. 9–10).
2. Conceptualising the Policy Response
2.1. Mitigation and Adaptation
2.2. A Simplified Theory of Change Perspective
- The first of these is the way in which the diagnostic narratives of rural depopulation are presented, and the analogies employed.
- The second is the nature of the “intermediate outcomes”, which are embedded in the strategies. These may be envisaged as “stepping-stones” on the way to addressing demographic decline. As such, they are symptomatic of a strategy’s underpinning conception of complex shrinking, and of appropriate responses.
3. National Policy Initiatives in Rural Regions with Population Decline
3.1. Spain—National Strategy to the Population Challenge (2017)
3.2. Italy—Manifesto to “Repopulate” Remote Regions (2020)
3.3. Germany—National Commitment to Cope with Inequality and Population Shrinkage (2020)
3.4. Scotland—A Scotland for the Future (2020)
3.5. France—Mission Document for Equal Chances of Rural Areas (2020)
4.1. Shifting Policy Perspectives at the National Level
- All the strategies tacitly acknowledge the need for interventions to go beyond the narrow, immediate demographic processes of out-migration, ageing, low fertility, and high mortality. Their responses confront complex shrinking processes, which require integrated solutions, breaking down policy silos. Whilst this is, conceptually, a strength, pragmatic observers may point to the risk of dissipation of thinly spread policy resources, a lack of coherence, and weak leadership.
- Another common thread in the strategies is the acknowledgement of the plurality of rural contexts (as opposed to an urban–rural dichotomy). The simplistic binary differentiation of urban and rural, recognised as unhelpful in academic circles for more than half a century , lingers on in the policy discourse. The strategies reviewed are notable in the degree to which they acknowledge the heterogeneity of rural contexts, both as a justification for place-sensitivity, and as a potential asset to be mobilised against (complex) shrinking processes.
- A third observation relates to perceptions of the challenge and diagnostic analogies—the “pictures” that are used to describe the shrinking process and its complex effects. Generally, these imply that the aspatial/context-blind application of neoliberal notions of competitiveness or growth based upon innovation and entrepreneurship are insufficient. Four generic analogies have been observed:
- Emptying and filling areas. This implies that areas are like containers that have a finite population capacity and that either emptying or overfilling has social and economic consequences. This analogy is explicit in the Italian and Spanish strategies.
- Regional (im)balance—This analogy is closely related to the previous one but focuses on relative rates of change rather than deviation from a fixed capacity. Thus, in Scotland, the concern is about a drift from west to east; in France, from NE to SE; and in Germany, from the “New” Laender towards former West Germany. According to this perspective, the problem is not so much about absolute numbers of inhabitants, abandonment or “desertification”, but more about the costs associated with a widening mismatch between population, service provision, infrastructure, and housing stock.
- Human/social capital disempowerment—These are both causes and consequences of long-term demographic decline. Effects include the weakening of the ambitions and innovation capacity of younger people—the dominant concept driving the strategy in France.
- Well-being and spatial (in)justice—Recursive effects of demographic change on living conditions and spatial inequalities, evaluated against notions of spatial justice, are key concepts in the German strategy and are also evident in the French documents.
- Intermediate Outcomes—these are the specific changes delivered by interventions that are assumed to contribute towards mitigation. The strategies all focus mainly on (partial) mitigation rather than adaptation. Intermediate outcomes are multifarious, often not strictly defined, and range from housing market adjustments “reactivating” the ambitions of young people, increasing residential attractiveness, and promoting well-being. Whilst neo-liberal language (realising potential, promoting innovation, and entrepreneurship) remains, the balance has shifted away from market-driven economic growth, and towards more qualitative societal and individual benefits.
- All four of the generic strategies described in Table 1 (compensation, relocalisation, global reconnection, and smart shrinking) are evident in the national policies described above. However, there are hints of shifting prioritisation, either in response to external forces (such as globalisation) or (particularly relocalisation and smart shrinking) as a consequence of deliberate reorientation and reflecting a rising awareness of unconventional options.
4.2. Challenges for EU Policy: The Need for Coherence, Long-Term Commitment, Sensitivity and Trust
- Urbanisation, better links with cities and towns, and “spread effects” are not the only ways for rural areas to prosper;
- While primary sector activities play an important role in rural areas, rural policy should address the needs of the wider rural population, their economic activities, and service requirements;
- Rural areas are a heterogeneous group, with a variety of (economic, human, social, environmental) capital endowments, which can/should form the basis of new and unique place/community development paths;
- These new development approaches need to be “smart”, both in the sense that they are place/context-appropriate and in the sense that they are responsive to changing technology and patterns of spatial behaviour, especially in terms of mobility, information and communication.
Institutional Review Board Statement
Informed Consent Statement
Data Availability Statement
Conflicts of Interest
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|Compensation||Relocalisation||Global Reconnection||Smart Shrinking|
|Diagnostic Narrative||Population loss is due to the decline of traditional resource-based economic activities and the geographical disadvantages they face.||Economic activities in remote rural areas are at a disadvantage in the globalised economy. Long supply chains mean added value is retained in cities.||Rural business networks in remote areas are not well connected with the global economy. Resulting knowledge and innovation lags lead to stagnation and fewer employment opportunities.||Some degree of population decline is an unavoidable adjustment to a changed economic context. The response should be to manage that decline in such a way that minimises well-being impacts.|
|Intermediate Outcomes||Compensation and income support maintain the viability of economic activities, stemming outmigration.||Viability may be restored (and out-migration reduced) by shortening supply chains and closer ties to adjacent markets.||Improved access to globalised sources of knowledge and innovation enhances business performance, creates quality jobs, improves population retention, and attracts in-migrants.||A smaller economy but improved well-being for the residual population through innovative service delivery, often employing new IT-based solutions.|
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Dax, T.; Copus, A. European Rural Demographic Strategies: Foreshadowing Post-Lisbon Rural Development Policy? World 2022, 3, 938-956. https://doi.org/10.3390/world3040053
Dax T, Copus A. European Rural Demographic Strategies: Foreshadowing Post-Lisbon Rural Development Policy? World. 2022; 3(4):938-956. https://doi.org/10.3390/world3040053Chicago/Turabian Style
Dax, Thomas, and Andrew Copus. 2022. "European Rural Demographic Strategies: Foreshadowing Post-Lisbon Rural Development Policy?" World 3, no. 4: 938-956. https://doi.org/10.3390/world3040053