The emptying out of rural areas and the accompanying brain drain are fuelling inequality in the EU’s most depopulated regions

The emptying out of rural areas and the accompanying brain drain are fuelling inequality in the EU's most depopulated regions

A boy plays next to an abandoned house in the Canido neighbourhood of the Spanish city of Ferrol, located in the region of Galicia, at Europe’s western edge. To counteract the detrimental effects of an ageing population and mass youth exodus, this former military port has reinvented itself through graffiti. This has allowed the neighbourhood to increase its cultural attractiveness and slow its decline. A similar initiative was put into place in the Italian village of Petriolo (with art installations).

(José Álvarez Díaz)

Europe is changing. These changes, including plummeting birth rates, an ageing population and increased urbanisation, which are taking place throughout most of the developed world, are inexorably transforming the continent. Fewer and fewer Europeans are being born, and while immigration from other parts of the world can help offset this trend, younger generations are increasingly concentrating in the places where the best opportunities for education, employment and prosperity lie: large urban centres. Meanwhile, the remaining areas are being left behind. They face a shrinking and ageing population, with far fewer university-educated workers and fewer and fewer people of working age.

Between 2015 and 2020 alone, the European Union (EU) lost 3.5 million people of working age (between the ages of 25 and 64) and is projected to lose an additional 35 million between 2020 and 2050 (of a population that currently totals around 447 million people). With 15 per cent of the population under the age of 15 and 21 per cent over the age of 65, three out of five Europeans are currently working for both themselves and for the other two.

According to a legislative initiative report by the European Parliament’s Regional Development Committee (REGI), backed by the European Parliament, encouraging the European Commission and EU member states to create a common law to tackle the “brain drain” in Europe’s most depopulated regions, immediate action is required to halt the erosion of population, economic environment, quality of employment and access to essential public services.

According to the report, “if left unaddressed, this process will trigger new and growing territorial disparities as regions age and fall behind in terms of size and skills of their workforces […]. A shrinking workforce is thus simultaneously a demographic, economic and social phenomenon,” which could end up having very profound long-term repercussions.

These trends risk undermining confidence in the European Union and in the very democratic values that should be its unifying underpinning. “Increasing territorial disparities […] will result in a growing number of people and communities feeling left behind, which could further fuel current trends in political discontent” and “decrease public support for reforms, including those related to green and digital transition”.

According to Eurostat, 30.6 per cent of the EU’s population lives in rural areas, which account for about 80 per cent of the EU’s land area. While the trend of depopulation is less existential in Western Europe than in Eastern Europe – compare “empty Spain” and “forgotten France” with “dying Romania” – every region is affected to a greater or lesser extent. Almost 50 regions in Europe are already stuck in what are known as “development traps,” which can be found throughout countries like Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Croatia, as well as in the south and north-west of Italy, the east of Germany and some regions of the Czech Republic, Poland, France, Greece and Portugal. Another 30 or so regions are at risk of falling into development traps soon, especially in countries such as Spain, France, Greece, Poland, Finland, Lithuania and Latvia.

The vicious circle of “development traps”

“Development traps are a failure to attract people of working age. This occurs when a region exhibits conditions such as a reduction in the working age population, an increase in the older population, a high percentage of youth unemployment, a stagnation in the number of people with tertiary education and a youth exodus to other countries,” Spanish Socialist MEP Cristina Maestre Martín de Almagro, rapporteur of the European Parliament report, explains to Equal Times.

“When we analyse the rural exodus and the brain drain,” she warns, “it is easy to fall back on an explanation that looks more like a vicious circle than a scientific analysis. If the brain drain in regions that are already classified as ‘less developed’ is not remedied, we risk the dismantling of public and private services,” given the shortage of users. “We suffer, in short, a process of territories being hollowed out. And in turn, the populations of these areas, especially young people, are embarking on a process of rural exodus, precisely because they do not have access to service networks” that would help them remain in their areas of origin.

The key to solving this problem lies in “transforming rural environments to make them attractive and stabilise the population”. To this end, as Maestre explains, the report has generated “a very broad political consensus”. It calls for EU tax rules to be updated to facilitate social and ecological investments in less developed regions, and for the difficulties of the most physically isolated areas (island, mountainous, highly depopulated and overseas regions, where youth unemployment is much higher than the European average) to be taken into account. It also proposes that priority be given to financing this effort by coordinating the EU’s Cohesion Policy (at least 5 per cent of the budget of which is meant to be devoted to rural areas) with the Common Agricultural Policy, and that a specific budget line be created for regions with severe and permanent demographic challenges.

To this end, Eurofound, the EU’s agency for the improvement of working conditions and quality of life, organised a seminar at the end of last year on how to improve this convergence of policy efforts to bridge the growing gap between the EU’s rural and urban areas. Interviewed by Equal Times, Massimiliano Mascherini, head of the social policies unit at Eurofound, said that “the freedom of circulation of goods and people is one of the pillars of the European Union project.

The fact that people move from different areas and go where the opportunities are across Europe is the great added value of the European Union”. Mobility is thus “a positive for the European Union”. He acknowledges, however, that it is necessary to attract and retain talent in their regions and countries of origin, in order for mobility to become “a temporary situation, a period where the individual goes abroad, goes in habitat, goes somewhere else in order to enrich their human capital, and then comes back to their region of origin to enrich it with a higher level of human capital, a higher level of expertise and innovative solutions”. However, as Maestre argues, “the brain drain is a real and palpable problem in many EU countries, and it needs to be addressed in a European way”. As Mascherini adds, “an innovative way of thinking [through cultural projects, for example] can be transformative in restoring rural areas and making them flourish”.

Eastern Europe bleeds westward

The increasingly worrying problem of inequality in Western Europe has long been an existential crisis in Eastern Europe. “A region that loses population also loses wealth, social cohesion and prospects for prosperity, and will have more difficulties in decarbonising its economy and transforming itself digitally,” Maestre says. For Eastern Europeans, this is a much more acute problem. “While in countries like my own, Spain, the brain drain is from rural areas, which are incorrectly said to be ‘emptied out’, to urban areas, they remain within the same country. In Eastern Europe, this exodus is from rural areas of one member state to another member state, so the population loss affects the country as a whole”.

Indeed, the situation is viewed far more gravely on the eastern half of the continent. “Brussels does not appear to have placed on its strategic agenda in any consistent way coherent and systematic policies addressing the real causes of the international migration corridors currently emptying out Eastern Europe, migrations that resemble a true exodus, or adopting strategies to eliminate the causes of structural poverty and the great gap between the East and West,” says veteran Romanian geopolitical sociologist Ilie Bădescu, a former professor of sociology at the University of Bucharest and a specialist in a phenomenon by which his country is one of the most affected. Between 2011 and 2021 alone, Romania lost 1.1 million inhabitants, 5.7 per cent of its population. The country suffers from “accelerated ageing” and the number of children has dropped by half since the 1990s. Since EU members left communism behind in 1989, 41 per cent of those who have migrated west are Polish, 38 per cent Romanian and 9 per cent Hungarian. Almost all of Romania and Bulgaria’s regions, as well as half of Hungary’s, find themselves in “development traps”.

According to Bădescu, this massive depopulation is the “visible effect of hidden processes” due to the combination of Europe’s generalised “demographic winter” coupled with a development model that has been promoted in the East. His colleague Cătălin Zamfir, also a former Minister of Labour and Social Protection (1990-1991), shares his analysis: “the model applied in the West is that of an economy that produces welfare,” while “the model of society imposed in the East, on the other hand, has been the globalising-neoliberal one. Instead of promoting development through general welfare, it has led to sustained underdevelopment with significant poverty”. This transition to a “perverse” capitalism, which “generates wealth but not well-being,” has led to a “terrible decline” throughout the East, in both rural and urban areas, and the massive youth exodus that has taken place since 1989 and which has caused Romania to lose 79 per cent of its national GDP over the last 30 years.

According to Zamfir and Bădescu, neoliberal policies were implemented in Romania in a more extreme manner than in other eastern countries. As recently as 2017, the average GDP per capita of the countries that joined the EU in 2004 was around 83 per cent of the European average; for Romania, that figure was just 63 per cent.

Since the 1990s, a social and economic model of “peripheral capitalism” has been “introduced throughout the East,” says Bădescu. As he explains, this system creates “sustained underdevelopment and perpetual poverty, and the two associated phenomena of precipitous population decline and youth exodus”.

In some countries, “the east-west migration momentum shows no sign of stopping,” he adds. And while population decline has begun to slow down in Romania (since 2016), Poland (2017) and Bulgaria (2019), it “remains high from one generation to the next”. In the other ex-communist nations, more people are already returning to their homelands than are emigrating abroad.

MEP Maestre acknowledges that, although the EU has so far adopted specific measures for different affected areas, “we have not been able to reflect on, much less respond to, those reasons”. In the past decade, “some governments have chosen to gut public services. But every time a health centre or a school is closed, people are encouraged to leave their villages. We are not talking about this enough”.

“I think there is a lack of method when it comes to proposing solutions,” she says. “For example, I find it hard to understand why no one has taken education and training planning seriously, or why gender and equal opportunity policies have been so neglected, when we know that young people and women are the first to leave”. The report that Maestre defends highlights the importance of guaranteeing access to “regular and up-to-date training,” so that people in rural areas too can adapt to the new demands of the labour market and not be left behind because of where they live.

Europe faces a tumultuous future if these problems are not addressed

While Maestre remains optimistic and focused on solutions, Bădescu warns that the current “asymmetric geography of chronic gaps between east and west, north and south” should not be allowed to be “legitimised,” as was the case with the “well-known doctrine of a multi-speed Europe, recently relaunched by Emmanuel Macron”.

If this “asymmetry” is not resolved, he argues, “the system will descend into a crisis that will be difficult to manage” and could end up generating such strong migratory and social tensions that European governments will be tempted to “adopt authoritarian policies”. These problems are causing a serious “break down in confidence in state institutions,” encouraging euro-scepticism and the “systematisation of social disillusionment” against a backdrop of “relative poverty” that gives rise to “extremist polarisation” and, in post-communist Europe, to a certain “nostalgia for the past,” says Bădescu.

“Europe’s future risks being defined by these grave problems,” he warns. If its structural roots remain unaddressed, our era will be one of an EU “of turmoil and stagnation, not of progress as the optimists of the European agenda in Brussels believe”.

This article has been translated from Spanish by Brandon Johnson