The conclusion of the mid-term review of the Common Agriculture Policy in 2003 was the clearest signal possible from the European Union that the second pillar of the CAP or, more commonly, rural development policy is now regarded as central to the future of an enlarged Community. People are the lifeblood of rural areas. As is all too evident here and elsewhere, the greatest threat to the survival of rural Europe is the continued decline of rural populations particularly in poorer and peripheral areas. The single most serious challenge facing rural development policy-makers is the need to provide a rural infrastructure capable of delivering a sufficient standard of living and employment opportunity to sustain vibrant rural communities.
It has been clear for some time now to those involved that farming alone can no longer sustain rural populations. Rural dwellers expect and demand a standard of living comparable with that of urban dwellers and will rightly settle for nothing less. Therefore, new ways must be found to address the needs of rural dwellers. I attended a conference on rural development hosted by the European Commission in Salzburg last November. The conclusions of the conference provide some guidance for future policy: investment in the broader rural economy to generate the employment and living conditions necessary to maintain rural populations, especially young people and women. Policy should be implemented in partnership between public and private organisations. Development must encompass the social, educational, health, cultural, sporting and economic needs of communities. Rural development policy should apply to all rural areas of the EU.
Ireland must take a proactive part in shaping the European agenda towards rural development. Future policy should include: recognition that rural areas must have multi-dimensional development policies and recognition that total dependence on agriculture will not sustain the population in rural areas; clear spatial strategies, ensuring the continued maintenance and growth of rural populations; targeted funding for rural areas is essential to ensure that infrastructure deficits in roads, telecommunications, water, public transport etc., do not inhibit rural growth, these funds in particular need to be targeted on declining and peripheral areas; provision that EU competition law does not operate in such a way that the provision of essential services becomes prohibitively expensive in rural areas; and recognition that enterprise support mechanisms need to ensure rural areas can compete for enterprise development.
My Department is already delivering on some of these broad multi-sectoral policies. It implements a regeneration programme, CLÁR, targeted at areas of specific population decline. This programme co-ordinates existing sources of public and private finance and provides additional stimulus funding for the provision of small scale economic and social infrastructure to help rural communities overcome local difficulties, and access a range of essential services such as water supply, sewerage, road access, broadband communication, community and economic infrastructure, etc. This programme has vividly demonstrated that small amounts of public funding specifically targeted can have an significant impact on disadvantaged rural areas experiencing low or declining populations. Many farmers cannot generate an adequate income from farming and are often under-employed. To counter this problem I am establishing a rural social scheme to enable them to participate in work programmes and provide community-based rural services while farming normally. This can secure a reasonable income and an enhanced rural, social and physical environment for them. Such an integrated approach to rural development could be central to future EU rural development proposals.
Rural communities also continue to receive support through current programmes such as Leader+ and the national Leader rural development programme as well as initiatives I have launched for rural enterprise and small food producers. We are about to enter a critical period in the formation of long-term rural development policy in the EU. The publication of the financial perspectives containing proposals on budget headings for rural development measures post-2006 is expected soon as are the Commission proposals for a future rural development programme. In bilateral meetings in Dublin Castle under the aegis of the Irish Presidency of the EU with the EU Commissioners responsible for rural affairs and regional policy I have made clear that my Department will take an active part in the discussions on future proposals for the direction of EU rural development policy. MEPs responded warmly to my vision for the future of rural Europe when I addressed the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development in the European Parliament.
To welcome the new member states to the EU family and at the same time open real debate on the living conditions of rural dwellers in rural Europe, my Department as part of Ireland's EU Presidency will host a conference entitled Improving Living Conditions and Quality of Life in Rural Europe from 31 May to 1 June 2004. The foregoing demonstrates that I have been productive in advancing an enhanced role for rural development at EU and national levels.