25th Oct 2016


Europe's rare youthful villages

  • In Germany, many move from villages to big towns like Cologne and Frankfurt in the west or Leipzig and Dresden in the east. Few return. (Photo: Valentina Pop)

Dorpen, Heede, Neulehe, and Wippingen. Few people have ever heard of them.

But the small German villages near the Dutch border in the Emsland district have policy experts scratching their heads.

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  • Reports of so-called ghosts towns are becoming increasingly common in Europe. (Photo: Balog János)

Unlike almost every other village in the EU, young people actually want to live there.

The average age in these villages hovers around 40, another anomaly when compared to other places where old people far outnumber the young.

Werlte, a larger town nearby of some 9,900, has an average age of 38.5, according to figures from 2014.

Theresa Damm from the Berlin Institute for Population and Development think tank, says good local infrastructure and an engaged community are among the factors for their apparent success.

"We often find that it is the people who are living there and how engaged they are in the matters of the town," she said.

A handful of other similar success stories are found in eastern Germany.

But overall, the German trend appears to follow the same pattern as everywhere else in the EU.

Ghost towns

Earlier this year, Italy's environmental agency, Legambiente, warned that some 2,500 Italian towns are at risk of emptying out entirely. Reports of so-called ghost towns are becoming increasingly common.

Last year, the mayor of Sellia, an Italian village in Catanzaro, even signed a tongue-in-cheek decree that banned people from dying.

Young people are moving away or have already quit villages, leaving behind elderly people, who die with no one to replace them.

In Germany, many move to big towns like Cologne and Frankfurt in the west or Leipzig and Dresden in the east. Few return.

As the population drops, investment in infrastructure gets cut and jobs disappear.

The east of Germany was hit hard following the fall of the Berlin wall. The youth went west, settled and had families, leaving behind a so-called diminished generation in the east.

The negative imbalance between the two halves has since more or less recovered. Cities in the east were well financed after reunification. Universities developed and living conditions improved.

But the future of villages in all of Germany remains precarious. Companies won't locate or set up shop in places where there is no skilled workforce.

And Germany's large migrant inflow last year is no replacement.

People seeking international protection gravitate towards large cities, attracted by jobs, and proximity to friends or fellow communities.

"The areas that are struggling now will continue to struggle with population decline and the migration flows won't change that," said Damm.

Wales, a farmer, and a pub

On his farm in central Wales, 66-year old Tom Jones tends to cattle and sheep.

His story and the story of a village pub show how EU funding can help combat the slow death of Europe’s countryside.

Jones employs two people full-time and another person part-time to help tend to the some 360 hectares he shares with his wife.

"I've been farming for 45 years," he says over the phone.

Like many of his peers, he receives payments from the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

"Welsh farmers depend very heavily on the … payments," he said.

Farmers in Wales pocket around €240 million a year in EU money for their own businesses.

But another part of the CAP money goes to help rural development, with nearly €1 billion set aside for new projects between 2014-2020.

Jones is also the vice-president of the Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA), a partly EU-funded group.

He said the EU money is a lifeline, and helps to “provide employment to advisers, support people, trainers, people who are sons and daughters of farmers who live in the countryside”.

Last year, locals saved a pub in the village of Bryngwran on Anglesey by securing a WCVA loan.

The pub is now being run as a non-profit enterprise.

Jones says it would have folded without outside expert help. He noted that similar investments, coupled with community action, are needed to protect Welsh villages.

"Empowerment is what the rural development scheme brings. That’s why it’s so valuable but it’s not always appreciated by politicians," he said.

EU funding gap

Jones, unlike many of his peers in Wales, did not vote for Brexit.

When Britain leaves the EU, probably at some point after 2019, the British government will have to find a replacement for CAP to keep other farms and pubs from dying.

But those who stay behind in the EU are also likely to face funding gaps.

Sixteen years ago, the EU divided the CAP into two pillars. One for farmers and another for rural development.

But Helene Moraut, a policy expert at the EU's body for sub-national authorities, the Committee of the Regions, says the move has had an adverse affect on villages.

Dwindling investment is a drain, she said, noting that some rural regions in Europe still lack internet access.

"As we have fewer and fewer farmers it is necessary to create other sorts of jobs, but there is no investment in this area," she said.

She says only 10 percent of the regional development fund is actually being used in rural areas.

"It is completely unfair for 90 percent of the territory, you have 10 percent of the budget," she said.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2016 Regions and Cities Magazine. You can download a free PDF version of the magazine here.

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