9th Dec 2023

Rural Europe left behind on pay and prospects, report warns

  • Whilst rural areas account for 83 percent of the EU's vast territory, only a quarter of its population reside in these areas (Photo: Unsplash)
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Those living in rural areas in Europe feel disregarded by their institutions and governments, as gaps in provision and living conditions compared with urban conurbations have increased in recent years, according to a new Eurofound report.

"Investing in education and training for rural communities needs to be prioritised," warned Massimiliano Mascherini, Eurofound head of unit for social policies. "Many in rural areas feel they are being left behind".

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Over the last decade, the rural-urban income gap has increased by nearly 20 percent. Whilst rural areas account for 83 percent of the EU's vast territory, only a quarter of its population reside in these areas.

Moreover, the risk of poverty or social exclusion is higher in rural areas than in towns and suburbs, Eurostat data for 2022 show.

The most noticeable difference between urban and rural areas in the EU is the stark contrast in employment opportunities and the poorer public service provision in the countryside — which will be exacerbated by depopulation and an ageing population that will make such provision more costly.

"Urban areas and regions in close proximity to cities have higher employment rates, average gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, and productivity," Eurofound points out.

Those figures show that rural areas are currently less attractive for working and living, and opportunities for growth are higher in urban areas, especially for young people but also for highly-educated workers.

Statistics indicate consistently higher NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) rates in rural areas, limiting the young's prospects and opportunities.

Rural areas also present unique challenges for women, where the gender employment gap is more significant.

"The provision of childcare facilities in rural areas, as well as good quality physical and digital infrastructure, could boost the attractiveness of rural areas to young people of working age who may otherwise choose to relocate to cities," says the report.

The digital divide between rural and urban areas is another pressing issue, which poses significant barriers to accessing education, securing employment, and participating in the digital economy.

Rural residents often lack digital skills, have fewer computers, and suffer from slower internet connections compared to their urban counterparts.

On the other hand, they are less burdened by housing costs, more likely to own their homes, and live in more spacious and less polluted areas than their urban counterparts.

Such differences result in a seven percent gap between the perceived treatment of those who live in cities and those who live in rural areas of the EU. This is what the Eurofound agency refers to as the 'recognition gap'.

However, the divide between rural and urban areas is not only an economic one — it also has far-reaching social consequences.

Urban residents are more likely to engage in informal political activities such as protesting, signing petitions, and participating in boycotts (except for in Cyprus, Greece, Luxembourg, Malta, and Ireland.)

Residents of less prosperous regions may also feel that their economic, social, and cultural identity is under threat, and inequality can undermine trust in both the government and the EU, potentially leading to social unrest.

"This can lead to a rise in populism and drive voters towards more authoritarian leaders," notes the report.

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