The agreement reached in 2021 to revise the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) empowers EU Member States to establish their own CAP Strategic Plans (CSP) to reach the nine CAP objectives, including the specific objectives aiming at strengthening the socio-economic fabric of rural areas. These plans then must be submitted and approved by the European Commission, which evaluates their alignment with European laws and the overall objectives. This process is under way: all Member States submitted their Strategic Plans between January and March 2022, and 19 of them received the Commission’s comments, through observation letters on 31 April 2022.
Overall European Commission comments about rural areas
In its observation letters, the European Commission looked at what countries were planning for rural areas, in terms of job creation, gender equality, digital access and rural infrastructures. The Commission welcomed the increased share of the Pillar II budget dedicated to LEADER (7% vs. 5.5% in the previous period) (EC, 2022a). However, it regrets that the majority of Plans rely mainly on LEADER, as opposed to other CAP instruments, to address the significant socio-economic development needs identified in rural areas. Nine of them do not even include any other type of intervention. The Commission also observed that the majority of the Plans do not include CAP support to achieve full broadband coverage of rural areas and that only 13 CSPs explicitly support the creation of new jobs in rural areas (six have not provided figures on this issue).
Therefore, the Commission invites the Member States to consider non-LEADER interventions and additional funding for diversification, basic village infrastructure and the social inclusion of disadvantaged members of the rural population. In addition, Member States should clarify how their intervention strategy addresses the identified needs and the synergies with other EU and national policies and funds, as the Long-Term Vision for the EU’s Rural Areas. Finally, Member States have been asked to ensure a balanced participation of equality bodies in the governance to adequately represent women, the youth and the interests of people in disadvantaged situations.
Beyond these general observations, the Commission also provided targeted feedback for each Member State. As an illustration, its observations for the French, Slovenian and Spanish plans, for which the documents were available early, are summarised below, commented by SHERPA MAP experts from these countries.
In France, the European Commission was critical that the LEADER budget, which is the main intervention targeting investments and basic services in rural areas in the French CSP, is decreasing compared to the previous CAP and asks to correct this trend (EC, 2022b). Regarding interventions, while the Commission recognised that France is increasing the means to attract young farmers and facilitate the development of businesses in rural areas, it observed that the interventions proposed to contribute to this aim should be reviewed to meet certain societal expectations, particularly in terms of gender equality and agri-environmental transition. Moreover, France does not offer specific support for the digitalisation of farms and does not explain how national policies will be mobilised to improve broadband access and digital skills in rural areas. The Commission also underlines the need to improve the potential for synergies with other national and European policy instruments. Finally, the Commission highlighted the need to better integrate citizens in the national governance systems, in the functioning of the national CAP network, and in the agricultural knowledge and innovation system (AKIS), in connection with citizens’ request for access to spaces for consultation and openness.
French MAP expert Samuel Féret of CIHEAM Montpellier, reported that “the French CSP does not address adequately the socio-economic fabric of rural areas. As the CAP ‘à la française’ focuses mainly on supporting the farming activity through various measures, it pays very little attention to the rural renaissance through local communities, basic services, youth and women participation in non-agricultural rural businesses.”
According to the European Commission, the Spanish CSP is likely to contribute to strengthening the socio-economic fabric of rural areas (EC, 2022c). In particular, the plan focuses on support for young farmers, local community development and the repopulation of rural areas. The Commission highlighted the innovative approaches to ensure gender balance in Spanish rural areas (with new specific mechanisms to stimulate the integration of women in agriculture) as well as generational renewal (with new tools to accompany succession on farms and to support newcomers). However, the Commission asked Spain to provide further information to ensure targeted support towards rural areas, beneficiaries and sectors that are most in need, and the coordination and complementarities between the Pillar II and other funds with regard to digitalisation, research and innovation and broadband intervention strategy.
“To this regard, it is worth mentioning that Pillar II funds are directly managed and prioritised by the regional governments of the Autonomous Communities in Spain. While this institutional organisation ensures the diversity across Spanish territories, it also challenges the definition of common actions to ensure rural areas, beneficiaries and sectors’ support. Nevertheless, though pursuing territory goals, regional governments are making a relevant effort to coordinate initiatives in rural areas beyond the CAP, for example digitalisation. Furthermore, there are some Pillar II interventions, such as economic diversification, that do not receive any additional support than LEADER. Hence, there are not enough funds to properly support the range of initiatives identified under the Pillar 2.”Isabel Bardají (UPM), Spanish MAP IDRA in Aragon
On the same line, from the Galician MAP expert Beatriz Guimarey of USC agrees that “the diagnosis in the Spanish CSP reports a high number of needs and challenges to strengthening the socio-economic fabric of rural areas. Therefore, it is unrealistic to expect that all these needs can be addressed with Pillar II interventions. It is essential to improve coordination and complementarity with other policies and funds, at the national and regional level, especially for Pillar II measures aimed at economic diversification and improvement of services in rural areas. Progress is being made in this respect, but there is still a long way to go.”
According to the Commission, the Slovenian CSP makes important efforts to support generational renewal and financial autonomy (EC, 2022d). However, it observes that the plan should better support the development of businesses, economic growth and employment in rural areas, in particular targeting women. On that matter, the Commission criticised the absence of commitment to promoting gender equality. The Commission highlighted that the development of services and infrastructure in rural areas, as well as the social inclusion of rural populations, are not sufficiently addressed in their Plan. Slovenia thus was requested to better explain how related interventions and national measures will contribute to these needs or to improve its effort in this area.
Slovenian MAP experts, Emil Erjavec and Ilona Rac of the University of Ljubljana, believe that “the European Commission has judged (correctly) that the Slovenian CAP Strategic Plan is relatively weak in the group of interventions that go beyond mere agriculture. Addressing rural development in a comprehensive manner is not recognised as a priority of agricultural policy, while there is also a lack of knowledge and staff in the competent institutions, reflected in a relatively weak planning capacity. Furthermore, different aspects of the topic are covered in different ministries, with a low level of coordination. There is thus no notable change in this field, despite Slovenia essentially being a rural country. However, it should be pointed out that Slovenia has since had a relatively strong regional and cohesion policy, which are supposed to address these aspects. Consequently, there is no sense in the Slovenian agricultural policy community of a need to broaden the array of measures and thereby disperse funding, directing it away from the usual recipients.”
Member States have now until the summer to review their plans to consider the European Commission’s comments. Browse through the SHERPA tool on Timeline for EU Programming to access all related documents and follow the stages in the process by country.
EC (2022a) CAP Strategic Plans and Commission observations Summary overview for 19 MS. Brussels.
EC (2022b). Observations on the proposal by France for a CAP Strategic Plan 2023-2027. Brussels.
EC (2022c). Observations on the proposal by Spain for a CAP Strategic Plan 2023-2027. Brussels.
EC (2022d). Observations on the proposal by the Republic of Slovenia for a CAP Strategic Plan 2023-2027. Brussels.
 LEADER (Liaison Entre Actions de Développement de l’Économie Rurale) is part of a series of measures of the CAP to contribute to balanced territorial development. The LEADER approach aims to involve people and local organisations in the design of community-led rural development strategies.