A strong EU cohesion policy – ​​a remedy to counter depopulation

In my native Romania, regions such as the Apuseni Mountains, the Banat Mountains and the Danube Delta face the pressing challenge of significant population aging and a worryingly low fertility rate.

However, this problem is not exclusive to Romania or Eastern Europe, but affects the entire EU. With the help of 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 need to improve the quality of life in regions facing depopulation, allowing young people to settle down and start a family, while allowing the older generations not to leave them by providing them with adequate facilities.

The second factor is mobility and freedom of movement. Quite a few Europeans cannot afford one of the EU's greatest assets: the ability to travel, especially within the EU. Others cannot afford to commute from their homes to the city where the job market offers opportunities, for a simple reason – lack of infrastructure. Thus, they are forced to leave their towns and villages, contributing greatly to depopulation.

The third factor affects the second even more: the large disparity between rural and urban areas. Young people are not attracted to work in the agricultural sector. Especially in Eastern Europe they leave the villages and migrate to the big cities in search of their personal and professional fulfillment.

The fourth factor is population ageing, which affects social security systems, especially for those on low incomes who contribute less to pension schemes. This can lead to poverty among older people and their exclusion from social life.

Quality of life far exceeds the level of adequate remuneration. EU cohesion policy can improve our lives in many areas, such as transport, energy, digital and social infrastructure. Let's take the example of kindergartens. A sufficient number of these are available in Eastern Europe, including my country, Romania. However, it remains a major challenge, especially for working women in certain areas, both in Western and Eastern Europe, to find adequate childcare.

Digital technologies can also help bridge the rural-urban gap, thereby reducing depopulation. The so-called Smart Village initiative can help build broadband internet infrastructure and 5G connectivity. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how many young professionals, not just IT specialists, have opted to live in the countryside, where they can complete 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 socialists and democrats believe that local authorities are very aware of the specific needs of their communities. We therefore want greater flexibility within EU structural and investment funds, allowing Member States, regions and local authorities to set their priorities in EU co-financed programmes. In addition, there should be better coordination and synergies between the different EU financial instruments to best suit the tailored needs of local and regional communities.

This refers not only to EU structural and investment funds, but also to the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development; Horizon Europe – the EU's key funding program for research and innovation; The Recovery and Resilience Facility – the EU's flagship initiative to mitigate the economic and social impact of Covid-19. In addition, the Connecting Europe Facility, established in 2014 for investments in infrastructure, transport, energy, digital and telecommunications projects across the Union, aims for greater connectivity between EU member states. It works through grants, financial guarantees and bonds. Last but not least, the European Territorial Cooperation (Interreg) program finances transnational and interregional cross-border activities, including in the ultra-peripheral regions of the EU.

These are not just names, but also opportunities for our Member States and their national entities to address 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 say that the European Union remains a success story with a social heart, based on solidarity, as one of its core values. To do this, however, we need to ensure that the EU's cohesion policy after 2027 remains financially sound.

Article written by Rovana Plumb, MEP.

Rovana Plumb is a member of Progressive Alliance of 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.