Europe must narrow the gap between urban and rural areas, otherwise radical populists will continue to flourish in neglected communities.
Last year on BBC radio, a woman from Manchester criticised the UK government’s over-reliance on London’s financial sector. The City’s interests, she said, dominate national and international policy decisions in every field: infrastructure, trade, education, even foreign policy. She warned that the countryside, feeling abandoned, would one day take “revenge”.
With the Brexit vote in June, many rural Britons seem to have done just that. London, Liverpool and Manchester supported Remain by substantial margins, while many rural parts of England produced majorities for Leave. Of course, people voted Out for many reasons. But it is hard to avoid the sense that the result was in part driven by a desire to deal a blow to the UK’s urban, cosmopolitan elite, who have profited from globalization while prospects for rural communities have stagnated.
Something similar seems to have happened in Belgium in the past week. On October 14, the regional parliament of Wallonia effectively held the entire EU hostage by blocking the proposed Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between the European Union and Canada, which has been agreed by 27 of the EU’s member states.
Like many of the rural communities in the UK that voted for Brexit, Wallonia is poor and feels neglected. In the 19th century its steel and coal mining industries prospered. But the mines closed after the Second World War, after which the region went downhill. Unemployment is high, with reports of generations of family living on the dole. The Walloons’ rejection of CETA was partly caused by popular fears that public services would be further scaled back.
The gap between urban and rural communities is widening all over Europe, increasingly causing political fallouts at the continental level. It divides Europeans, allows vulnerable electorates to be seduced by populists, and makes it harder for the EU to formulate common trade and foreign policies.
In Austria one in three communities are losing inhabitants, all of them in rural areas. Young women move to the cities in search of jobs and education, leaving young men behind. Farmers in the Waldviertel, not far from Vienna, think their way of life is under threat. “Everything is bio nowadays,” a villager complains. “These elite city dwellers produce restrictions and regulations for everything! One day they will ban hunting, too.” He votes for the far rightwing FPÖ party, which, he says, “protects our traditions”.
He’s not alone. During presidential elections in May, FPÖ candidate Norbert Hofer received 62 percent of the rural vote. Men and elderly people favoured him. Hofer’s Green-liberal competitor, Alexander van der Bellen, who is popular with young and female voters, won the election because major cities supported him. The election was invalidated because of procedural irregularities, and will be repeated on December 4th. This time, van der Bellen often campaigns in the countryside, visiting farmer’s markets and folk festivals.
The Austrian example shows that there is a direct link between the depopulation and relative neglect of the European countryside, and the rise of far right, populist parties. In Northern France and Auvergne villages are deserted and Front National does correspondingly well. The Dutch province of Limburg ‘loses’ 8000 people per year. In the small German town of Goslar so many people move away to bigger cities that companies, struggling to find employees, are planning to leave, too. Goslar’s mayor, Oliver Junk, says inhabitants have a choice: either become a ‘grey reserve’ with dwindling public services, or invite refugees and migrants in to boost public and private investment to secure a better future for all. “The simplest growth program for Goslar is immigration,” Mr Junk recently told The Guardian.
In September Die Zeit published a story about local elections in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where the far-right AfD party scored 20 percent. One fire brigade volunteer says he hopes there will never be a fire in the village: apart from him all volunteers are retired, with some using a walking stick. Roads are not often repaired; post offices have long gone; internet connectivity is slow. Small wonder that the AfD made such inroads.
The Front National, FPÖ, AfD and similar parties across the EU are deeply euroskeptic. They see the EU as a cosmopolitan project of urbanites embracing globalization. Several of these parties have ties with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, since they all share a deep hatred of western liberalism. They present national sovereignty as the solution.
It is true that the EU is a form of globalization. Yet it also protects Europe against it – literally so, in the countryside. While many national authorities have tightened their belts since the financial crisis struck in 2008, Brussels still heavily subsidizes poorer regions in all member states, sponsoring employment programmes and investing in infrastructure. Nine percent of the European budget is spent on rural development; 30 percent on agriculture.
The Committee of the Regions, Europe’s assembly of regions and local communities, has just published The Impact of Demographic Change on European Regions, a report on rural depopulation. It contains useful case studies of municipalities trying to slow down (or counter) urbanisation. Strapped for cash, they save on streetlights, use empty seats on regional buses for freight, and put pensioners to work. Some even install high-speed internet themselves, without national-level support.
Europe’s radical rightwing turn is dramatic and dangerous. It is partly caused by declining prospects in the countryside. But building walls and insulting foreigners will not improve prospects. Instead, Europe must narrow the gap between urban and rural areas with smart policies, providing rural communities with something they desperately need: hope for a better future.
Caroline de Gruyter, a Europe correspondent for NRC Handelsblad, is an ECFR Council member. She is based in Vienna.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.