Europe has a regional heart

Let’s put rural and mountain areas at the centre of EU policies.
Andrea Membretti (MATILDE Scientific Coordinator)

The regions (“regioni”, “régions”, “regions”, “Comunidades Autónomas”, “Länder”, “voivodati” or “peripheries”)  –as institutions in-between State and local governments– have been assuming a leading role in the process of European integration in the recent past. Nearing the turn of the century, the 1990s saw numerous important developments and a number of optimistic predictions. During this period, we saw the Europe of the Regions perspective, in which the main avenues of the EU policy, seeking to overcome territorial inequalities, has favored the active role of these intermediate bodies, within the so-called multi-level governance approach.

However, despite the role of the regions in the construction of the European Union, as well as in its functioning, the 2000s have witnessed a progressive reduction in this respect as European institutions began paying less and less attention towards these territorial actors. This is particularly true for rural and mountain regions. Despite various funds invested in local development, for these regions, the feeling of being on the margins of economic and social policies grew stronger.

There are many European regions which, as Andrès Rodriguez-Pose (one of the members of MATILDE’s Scientific Board – link) states, have long felt as being places left behind or places that don´t matter. It is no coincidence that in these territories, disaffection towards European institutions is spreading, populism is growing, and xenophobic forces or sovereign movements are emerging.

Has Europe forgotten so much of the continent?

Yet, let us not forget that half of European land mass is classified as predominantly rural, and about 30% of it as mountainous. What’s more, the marginalization of rural and mountain regions is particularly objectionable if we consider Article 174 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, which states that the EU shall strengthen economic, social and territorial cohesion within the EU, in particular by “reducing disparities between the levels of development of the various regions and the backwardness of the least favored regions.” It goes on to state that “Among the regions concerned, particular attention shall be paid to rural areas, areas affected by industrial transition and regions suffering from severe and permanent natural or demographic handicaps, such as the northernmost regions with very low population density and island, cross-border and mountain regions.”

The role rural and mountain regions can play for Europe’s shared wealth and wellbeing is clear for all to see. Agricultural production, forests, water reserves, cultural heritage, diversity, languages and local autonomy these areas possess make them simply irreplaceable.

Furthermore, in the face of the radical changes imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic, what these regions have to offer in terms of differing modes of settlement, production and consumption is likely to be increasingly sought after, as their local systems are characterized by less anthropic pressure, and more circular economies. As densely populated urban areas were hit hardest by the pandemic, social rarefaction of these regions connote welcome resilience in times of such moments of crises.

MATILDE’s foundations

MATILDE starts from here, from the potential of these places left behind. Our aims is to improve our shared knowledge base and awareness of one another’s good practices so that we can co-construct a Europe that leverages this hugely under-utilized heritage, this pool of resources that must feed the progress of our entire continent as a whole, and not drift towards forms of local micro-protectionism.

When analyzing the potential of these regions, immigration is one of the fundamental factors that must be considered. Rural and mountain areas have been structurally losing inhabitants for decades, they suffer from chronic labor shortages, often see young people fleeing to the cities and are increasingly suffering from ageing populations. Naturally, the arrival of new inhabitants is a fundamental resource. Immigration, especially international immigration from non-European countries (but also intra-EU and interregional immigration) represents today the main contribution to the demographic stability of marginalized regions, as well as a central factor for the functioning of entire sectors of local economies, from agriculture to tourism, from personal services to small and medium industries or crafts.

MATILDE wants to investigate this phenomenon, to understand how much it weighs on the development of rural and mountain regions without reducing it to a study of integration processes of foreigners or an identification of new policies in favor –only– of newcomers.

For sound policies, we must acknowledge and address the challenges as well. Local populations and immigrants will never be able to establish a new and shared vision for their common future in these regions if we fail to proactively develop policies for the inclusion of newcomers; if public spaces of encounter and negotiation between cultures and needs are not established; if local populations are not to a certain extent entitled to preserve their own traditions compared to those of outsiders.

The ambition

The main purpose of this project, and the reason why it is implemented by a network in which local actors have as much weight as scientific ones, is to understand how immigration, in all its forms but especially from non-EU countries, actually affects the overall development of these regions.

How can we highlight immigration’s potential contribution to policies that put rural and mountain regions, and their inhabitants, back at the center of the construction of a European Union, which is experiencing an unparalleled crisis? How can we foster a new attractiveness of these territories, in the post Covid-19 era, where the ‘scattered living’, the return to the local dimension, the re-peopling of inner and depopulated areas, may well offer enormous opportunities to invest our policies in?

With these questions in mind, MATILDE is a project born with the ambition to involve the marginalized regions of the continent through a participatory reflection on their capacity for resilience, on their creative adaptation to current and future challenges. Our ambition is to rethink the relationships between rural/mountain and urban dimensions, between local population and newcomers. We seek to re-conceptualize and re-represent the active role of immigrants in these contexts, avoiding any rhetoric of ‘good feelings’, any easy solution perspective.

MATILDE is a project that leverages on the socio-economic impact assessment of immigration to put at the center of European public discourse one of the greatest resources of the continent: Rural and mountain areas and those who live in them, by birth, by choice, by necessity, by force or for all these reasons together. A project for Europe, therefore, to put at the center of the continent the inhabitants that don`t matter, regardless of their passport but not of their geographical and territorial location.

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