A robust EU cohesion policy – a cure to counteract depopulation

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Depopulation poses a significant challenge for the entire EU, but the cohesion policy offers a solution. By investing in areas like construction, transport, energy, digital and social infrastructure, it aims to improve our lives.

Rovana Plumb is a Romanian Member of the Progressive Alliance of the Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament. She is the Vice-President of this parliamentary group for a just transition, cohesion and demography, financing a better and fairer Europe.

In my homeland Romania, regions such as the Apuseni and Banat Mountains and the Danube Delta grapple with the pressing challenge of significant population aging and a troublingly low fertility rate.

However, this issue is not exclusive to Romania or Eastern Europe; it affects the entire EU. With the help of the Cohesion Policy and EU funds, we can turn the tide. How? By implementing strategies to make life more attractive in both urban and rural areas. 

We have to improve the quality of life in the regions facing depopulation; enabling young people to settle down and raise a family, while allowing older generations to remain, by providing them with suitable facilities. 

The second factor is mobility and freedom of movement. Too many Europeans cannot afford to benefit from one of the greatest strengths of the EU: the possibility to travel, especially within the EU. Others cannot afford to commute from their homes to the city where the labour market offers opportunities for one simple reason – lack of infrastructure. Thus, they are forced to leave their towns and villages, greatly contributing to depopulation.

The third factor compounds the second one: the large disparity between rural and urban areas. Young people often have few incentives to work in the agricultural sector. Particularly in Eastern Europe, they leave villages and migrate towards big cities in pursuit of their personal and professional fulfilment. 

The fourth factor is the aging population, which strains social security systems, especially for those with low incomes who contribute less to pension schemes. This can lead to poverty among the elderly and their exclusion from social life.

Quality of life goes far beyond adequate remuneration. EU Cohesion Policy can improve our lives in many areas such as building, transport, energy, digital and social infrastructure. Let’s take the example of kindergartens. A sufficient number of them are available in Eastern Europe, including in my country, Romania. It remains, however, a major challenge, especially for working women in parts of Western Europe, to find adequate childcare. 

Digital technologies can also help close the gap between the village and the city, thus reducing depopulation. The so-called Smart Village initiative can help with the building of broadband Internet infrastructure and 5G connectivity. The Covid-19 pandemic showed how many young professionals, not only IT specialists, opted to live in the countryside where they can perform their tasks online. The last four years have shown how many prefer life away from big cities like Bucharest, Frankfurt or Barcelona, provided they have the digital infrastructure to do so. 

We, the Socialists and Democrats, believe that local authorities are acutely aware of the specific needs of their local communities. Therefore, we want greater flexibility within the EU Structural and Investment Funds, allowing member states, regions and local authorities to set their priorities in EU co-funded programmes.

In addition, there should be better coordination and synergies of different EU financial instruments in order to best match the tailored needs of local and regional communities. This not only concerns the EU Structural and Investment Funds, but also the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development; the Horizon Europe – the EU’s key funding programme for research and innovation; the Recovery and Resilience Facility – the EU flagship initiative with the purpose of mitigating the economic and social impact of Covid-19.

Furthermore, the Connecting Europe Facility, established in 2014 for infrastructure investments in transport, energy, digital and telecommunication projects across the Union, aims at greater connectivity between EU member states. It operates through grants, financial guarantees and project bonds.

Last, but definitely not least, the European Territorial Cooperation (Interreg) programme financing cross-border transnational and interregional activities, including in the outermost EU regions. 

These are not just names but opportunities for our member states and their subnational entities to tackle the issue of a negative demographic trend. When we coordinate the use of EU financial resources and combine them with smart ideas, we will be able to confirm that the European Union remains a success story with a social heart, grounded with solidarity as one of its core values. For this, however, we need to make sure that the EU Cohesion Policy post-2027 remains financially robust.

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