Empowering young people in rural areas | Interview with mayor Marko Vešligaj

rural youth
12 July 2023
Empowering young people in rural areas | Interview with mayor Marko Vešligaj

Rural areas cover half of Europe and are home to around 20 percent of its population. Despite their significant presence, these regions face the harsh reality of being among the poorest in the European Union, with a far reaching impact on our rural young people and their opportunities: the share of young people aged 15 to 29 years neither in employment nor in education or training is higher in rural areas.

Hence, an important goal of the EU Youth Strategy 2019-2027 is Moving Rural Youth Forward. This strategy seeks to guarantee that appropriate infrastructure, sustainable and high-quality jobs, and high-quality education opportunities are made available to young people in rural areas. Furthermore, the strategy emphasises the importance of supporting young people's active participation within their communities and of ensuring their inclusion in local decision-making processes. 

Giving young people in rural areas a voice

Young people living in rural areas undoubtedly have a pivotal role to play in the political processes of their community. Their active participation and engagement are crucial in shaping policies that cater to their unique needs and challenges. By ensuring the inclusion of young individuals from rural communities in the electoral process, we can guarantee that their perspectives are not only heard but also taken into account.

PES Group member Marko Vešligaj, mayor of Pregrada, Croatia, has made the empowerment of young people a priority. Under his mayorship, Pregrada – a rural town with some 7000 inhabitants – has put in place various initiatives aimed at involving young people in the local decision-making process. The town's lighthouse project is the first participatory youth budget in Croatia, implemented together with two other cities.  

"Four years ago, we initiated in Pregrada participatory budgeting for young people, enabling them to propose their ideas and actively participate in choosing the best ones and implementing them. Through this process, we gain insight into the needs of young individuals, allowing decision-makers to implement effective solutions and policies", he proudly stressed. "At the same time, participatory budgeting offers young people the opportunity to understand public budgets and the implementation process, and fosters their ability to create positive change within their communities."


Similary, S&D Group member Isabel Carvalhais, who is leading the debate in the European Parliament, stresses the importance of involving young people in rural areas in local community life in order to slow down their migration to urban areas. "Targeted interventions supporting young people – in particular young farmers - and fostering effective generational renewal should be a priority, in order to encourage the permanent presence of young people in rural areas and counteract the demographic decline", her report states.


Addressing the challenges of rural young people at EU level

It is vital to recognise that young people in rural areas face distinct challenges, including limited access to education, employment opportunities, and public services. These circumstances can create fertile ground for a rise of populism and rejection of European values. It is therefore crucial for the European Union and national governments to develop policies that specifically address the needs of young people in rural areas. By providing targeted support, we can ensure equal opportunities for all, prevent the marginalisation of rural young people, and enable them to develop their unique potential to its fullest.

The Europe's Rural Development Programmes, for instance, are aimed at supporting rural young people and their innovative ideas, engagement and participation in many ways

"To enable young people in rural areas to have a voice and influence, it is first of all crucial to educate them about democratic processes and political engagement. Educational institutions, local authorities, and civil society organizations can work together to raise awareness about the political process and provide resources to empower young individuals",  emphasises Mr. Vešligaj. Equipped with knowledge and information, rural young people can actively engage in political life, strengthening their role in decision-making and ensuring that their needs and perspectives are respected.

Europe goes rural

Creating a link between rural young people and the European level was one of the reasons behind Marko Vešligaj's decision to join the European Committee of the Regions (CoR). "The Committee plays a pivotal role in advocating for policies that support young people in rural areas. By collaborating with the European Youth Forum, for instance, the CoR can promote initiatives that enhance the participation of rural youth in the political process. This collaboration includes the establishment of networks and platforms for sharing experiences and best practices from rural areas. Furthermore, supporting projects that facilitate rural development becomes imperative in order to empower young people in these communities."

Making the voice of young people from rural areas heard also involves better connecting young people with each other. 

Rural Youth of Europe, a transnational public discussion forum for participatory and creative young people, has put young people from rural areas at the centre of its activities: "Creative jam" events, rural hackathons, and a dedicated blog are just some of the channels through which young people from rural areas can express their creativity and enthusiasm.  

Likewise, the European Commission's 2022 edition of the Rural Inspiration Awards showcased the importance of European rural young people in building a better future – greener, resilient, more socially inclusive, innovative, and digital.

Another inspiring initiative promoted at the EU level is the European Rural Youth Summit, which will take place from 5-9 September 2023 in Romania, aimed at creating a space for dialogue between rural young people and decision-makers. It provides a great learning and participatory context for rural young people to engage with experts and peers on rural development issues, to develop their knowledge and skills, and to promote the role of rural young people in shaping the future of Europe.


"Tackling the many challenges faced by young people in rural areas, encouraging them, and further strengthening their participation in decision-making is something that we as progressive leaders should champion at all levels. Only by educating and empowering rural youth can we create a more inclusive and democratic society that embraces the perspectives of all its citizens", stresses Mr Vešligaj.


With the active involvement of all young people, including rural young people, Europe can forge a greener, inclusive, and digital future. Together, young people hold the key to driving transformative change in rural communities, while simultaneously preserving the unique cultural and environmental aspects that make rural areas desirable places to live and work in.



© Photo credits: 

Dim Hou / Unsplash

Marko Vešligaj/City of Pregrada