The Agenda 2000 reform provided a new framework for rural development policy. As an essential part of the ‘European agricultural model’, it aimed to put in place a consistent regulatory scheme for guaranteeing the future of rural areas and promoting the maintenance and creation of employment. In striving for greater commitment of national and regional authorities for rural development, it mainly provided guidelines and had the intention to incorporate the rural measures in the agricultural policy. Thus it referred to the following principles:
The main innovation in the policy is that measures now have to be included in a Rural Development Plan which follows programming methods, previously known from the Structural Funds programmes. It is the national authorities task how they are applying the regulation and which geographical determinations they select. In many countries a number of “horizontal” programmes have been prepared, but there are also many regional programmes available. At any rate, the plans have to define its contribution to objective areas of Structural Funds (and they are compulsorily integrated within objective 1 regionalised programmes). They have also to follow the usual programming steps, including presentation of plans, adoption of programming documents, and decisions on implementation, and rules for monitoring and evaluation.
Until October 2001 all 68 Rural Development Plans presented by the Member States which have started from their experiences with different approaches and have selected very different priorities have been approved. Out of the measures available (see the survey under figure 6) the main activities differ from country to country considerably (figure 7). About 50% of funds of all programmes are planned for the four accompanying measures of GAP (agri-environment, early retirement, afforestation of agricultural land and LFA measures). This share of the total Rural Development Programmes various considerably between Member States (from more than 90% in Ireland to just 13% in the Netherlands). Austria has concentrated its programme, like Sweden, on the agri-environmental measures and LFA scheme. As the only compulsory part of the programme the agri-environmental measures meanwhile have achieved the biggest proportion. In comparison to the former period 1994-1999 they should also rise by 68% (from 2.2 to 3.7 bio. € per year).
Without going into too much detail on the scope of the measures it is important to show that with the Art. 33 measures countries have instruments at their disposal to increase the scope of action of farmers and people in rural areas. The following list of measures, detailed in the Regulation 1257/99 provides the prime basis for this part of the programme:
On average only about 10% of funds are foreseen for these measures in the EU. Some countries like Austria have an even much lower funding of about 4% for these measures, and additionally most measures are only eligible for the farm sector.
Source: EC 2001c
Although a series of evaluation studies have been carried out, the impact of the previous programmes can hardly be assessed through such analyses. What makes conclusions more difficult is the considerable time lag of the programmes execution and the corresponding evaluation provided. In general, one has to refer to the intermediate evaluations of Objective 5b programmes and national ex-post evaluations which are now analysed for synthesis studies at the EU-level. These mentioned interim evaluations, carried out around the years 1997 and 1998, provide nevertheless some interesting insights from the European perspective. Also the general assessment of the regional programmes of the first two Structural Funds periods (Europäischer Rechnungshof 1998) and the EU evaluation of the LEADER I outcome (Dethier et al. 1999) is interesting in this regard. The thrust of evaluation studies for rural development programmes had to fulfil requirements concerning the quantitative assessment of programmes progress. The financial performance, aspects of coherence and effectiveness, quantitative impacts and issues of efficiency have been the focus of the evaluations prepared for objective 5b programmes for some countries, and most of these commissioned by the European Commission DG VI; UK (PACEC 1998), Finland (Malinen et al. 1997), Germany (Tissen and Schrader 1998), Spain (Isla and Soy 1998) and Italy.
A more comparative work is available through the EU-wide ex-post evaluation of the LEADER I Community Initiative (1989 – 1993). This evaluation, conducted by the Commission, was realised by independent experts, included around 60 experts from 12 countries. The final report published in March 1999 (Dethier et al. 1999) allows a thorough insight into the achievements of the first generation of LEADER programmes and also can serve as starting reference for evaluation of rural development programmes with more complex methods. Although the work was based on a number of quantitative techniques the report has drawn in its conclusion the attention towards the importance of a more qualitative evaluation approach. In many aspects LEADER I was a pilot scheme and can be “considered as provider of a precious stock of knowledge about rural Europe utilised for a better targeting of rural policy actions” (Dethier et al. 1999, p. 166). The demonstration effect that was an objective of LEADER did influence rural policy ideas and led to a “reconsideration of traditional delivery systems for rural development support” (Dethier et al. 1999, p. 179) also at national and regional levels.
However, the lessons learned for rural policy are not always clear-cut. Although the experience of LEADER initiatives was highly appreciated, particularly in Southern Member States and in Ireland where LAGs were significant in number, the innovative aspects of LEADER “did not really affect the implementation of mainstream rural policy" (Dethier et al. 1999, p.179). Even when in LEADER II the number of LAGs has risen substantially and implementation affected a number of areas almost five times greater than in the first period the link to mainstream policies remained weak. There is scope to investigate the lack in the transfer of experiences to general rural policy.
Some of the obstacles might be seen in the fact that an experimental programme induces processes which need time. Positive returns become visible only in the long run and a minimum degree of continuity is needed. Meanwhile much greater priority has been laid on networking and participation, as core factors of rural development. Representation of local actors will still have to be extended and LAGs should not remain the single specific focus of activity but insure also the inclusion of other innovative actors.
The mid-term review of the CAP is the present assessment of the EU Commission and seeks to address the need to prepare for the integration of Member States during envisaged EU enlargement. Although there is concern about the issue of the timing of reform steps, the message is clear that a further reform shift towards rural development should be initiated through the current discussion process. The Commission proposals aim at “strengthen(ing) rural development by transferring funds from the first to the second pillar of the CAP via the introduction of an EU-wide system of compulsory dynamic modulation and expanding the scope of currently available instrument for rural development” (CEC 2002, p.3). There are only few additional instruments proposed, i.e. a new food quality chapter, a chapter “meeting standards” to help farmers to adapt to demanding standards based on the Community legislation, and the introduction of the possibility for animal welfare payments under the agri-environmental schemes. However, the main element of the reform is the decoupling of direct aids and the establishment of a farm income payment which alters the philosophy of agricultural support. The slow changes in the overall budgetary allocation between first and second pillar already reflect the opposition of agricultural interest groups against any shift towards rural development measures.