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A plea from the country side: heal Europe

Now is time for action. There is a need to heal the 'globalisation wound' between sprawling cities and the countryside. It is time for both politicians and European farmers to deliver solutions that will bring back prosperity to some rural areas across Europe.

By Martin Merrild, President of the European Farm Organisation Copa*

In Europe and America too, we are witnessing a new dangerous split between some thriving urban areas and rural areas.

Brexit is the latest example – some rural areas in England and Wales voted overwhelmingly to leave partly down to a lack of communication on what Brexit actually means. Weekly pools from the US presidential election show a similar protest sentiment across the mid-western plains, whilst coastal states are set to carry a Democratic victory through. But the anti-globalist sentiment left behind by angry Trump supporters is unlikely to go away any time soon, because it is rooted in a rural-urban split across the Western world that needs to be tackled in order to save the liberal international order of free trade and free movement of goods, capital and people that has brought us so much good.

In Europe, farmers are angry because of Brussels red tape and disillusioned when attempts to bring about simplification of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and its greening components bring about more restrictions in the way they are allowed to grow our crops. Such frustration is a source of Eurosceptisism which is the wrong answer to genuine concerns. Albeit imperfect, the CAP and the Single Market that it has brought about strives for a level playing field for competition, as opposed to the alternative where we faced 28 national agricultural policies and trading regimes.

We trade across borders in Europe and we want to sell our products on global markets across America and in Asia too. So farmers have a lot to gain from global free trade agreements, and we call for a rapid conclusion of the talks with Japan and swift implementation of the Canada agreement.
Yet in parallel we need to address concerns of the wider country side, which often has become a scene of discontent.

The adoption of the Cork Declaration on ‘A Better Life in Rural Areas’ was welcomed by European farmers and agri-cooperatives at Copa & Cogeca and serves as an important guidance for policy development that addresses the need of all people living in the country side, which is home to more than half of the EU population.

Since the days of Thomas Jefferson in America, who foresaw the exodus from the country side, and the industrial revolution in Europe in the late 18th and early 19th century, technological development has brought about an intensification of agriculture that has transformed our rural areas. For farmers, it has meant higher output but also falling profit margins per unit produced – per kilo of meat or grain, per litre of milk or wine. So although across the EU, we are 23 million farmers, this is much less than before . People have left the country side and moved to the cities, and for some rural communities which have been left behind, this structural development has initiated a negative spiral, sparking disinvestments in infrastructure, businesses and public services.

There is a renewed case for European politicians, European farmers and our neighbours to work together to reinvigorate our communities. We need to create the foundations for stronger economic development. In this respect, European support for investment in rural areas and critical infrastructure improvements to overcome the digital divide, as recognised in the Cork Declaration, is crucial , as are national policies aimed at moving government jobs out of capital cities to help give new life to rural communities.

The modern farmer often also has a partner who does not want to stay at home assisting as in the past. They want a job nearby. So we need to create more jobs in rural towns and cities. And there might be no better way to create such jobs than to develop our agricultural businesses, our farm cooperatives.

Across the EU, many farmers face unfair trading practices from big retailers. All too often, the way farmers are treated is both disrespectful and frankly exploiting. It is important that a regulatory framework exists that protects suppliers. But, also farmers can achieve a real strengthening of their position in the food chain when they have been able to join strong cooperatives that are able to add value to their products – conventional and organic alike. To achieve this and to really get the big volumes of farm produce sold at fair prices that are not dictated by retailers, we need to further develop our cooperatives so that they can stabilise farmers’ incomes and create more jobs in rural communities.

Realising that the rural-urban split is based on uneven economic fundamentals with globalisation privileging development in urban areas at the expense of the country side, it is also paramount to address the concerns of Europe’s rural majority with further concrete policy measures.
As we modernise the CAP to address the big issue of climate change, , why not incentivize such areas and make them more accessible to people, generating more rural tourism.

Why not undertake and facilitate large scale investments in the countryside, addressing market malfunctions that currently prevent entrepreneurs in small towns from obtaining loans for investments on the grounds that such investments are perceived to be more risky in rural areas than they are in urban industrial parks along the sprawling highways off the capital cities? The European Fund for Strategic Investment (EFSI), which has as its mandate to take on more risky investments to create growth and jobs, ought to do more to address the rural-urban divide.

The case for farm tourism and reinvigorated towns across Europe is not a plea for a return to an idyllic rural life that some believe existed 50 years ago. Modern agriculture in Europe is set to undergo a tremendous technological development during the next decades with sustainable intensification and precision farming guided by satellites and very soon supported by drones to play an essential part in our efforts to produce more food for the world with less environmental input. This is why EU climate policy also needs to include adequate flexibility for agriculture and recognise our limited mitigation potential.

Indeed, when it comes to the need for research, innovation and on farm development, our sector will be second to no other high tech sector in Europe.

As we work to promote rural prosperity, we should engage more with society around us, and seek to harvest the potential that rural areas hold and deal with major societal challenges such as the integration of migrants into our communities. This was also mentioned in the Cork declaration.

The EU needs a strong agricultural policy and a credible budget for it after 2020. We need to ensure that the rural development measures that already exist within the CAP are prioritised to help deal with these big societal challenges. With such a framework in place, European farmers can help heal our societies and reinvigorate our country side in the face of globalisation, whilst helping the planet deal with the impact of climate change.

*Martin Merrild, 61, is a Danish farmer from Struer, West-Denmark; since 2015, Merrild is President of the European farm association, Copa, representing 23 million farmers across the EU. He is also the President of the Danish Agriculture and Food Council. This OpEd is published on the occasion of the biannual congress of Copa & Cogeca, the united voice of farmers and their cooperatives in the EU that took place on 5-6 October in Athens, Greece.

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