'Because rural development is to continue as the subject of one of only three Community Initiatives in future,' Mr Fischler has stated, 'we need to take maximum advantage of the experience gained by the final beneficiaries under this programme to help us work out what to do next in this field.'
Our commitments to developing the common agricultural policy, ensuring economic and social cohesion throughout the Union and widening the Union to include six new countries with a major rural component are all factors driving us more than ever to design a strong, pro-active policy specifically for the countryside.
It should not therefore be surprising that the Commission has chosen rural development, along with human resources and cooperation between countries and regions and across borders, as one of the three leading fields among the present thirteen Initiatives which are to be made into a new Community Initiative for the period up to 2006.
Leader is based on an integrated, 'bottom up' approach to development, aimed at areas of small size (populations of less than 100 000). Its goals are:
-- encouraging local rural development initiatives that can serve as a model for others;
-- supporting innovative and transferable operations which demonstrate new directions for rural development in Europe;
-- promoting the sharing of experience and the transfer of know-how, in particular through transnational cooperation among local actors in the countryside.
The subtitle for the Brussels conference is '800 leaders speak their mind', with the idea of bringing together senior officials and decision-makers in rural development at European, national and regional level with more than 800 local actors who have the job of coordinating the Leader programmes on the ground.
In fact, there are currently 821 Leader areas across the fifteen Member States. Between 1994 and 1999, they are receiving almost ECU 4 billion (in Community funding, other public funds and private funds) forlocal-initiative projects covering farm tourism and farm products as well as the revival of traditional crafts, improvement of the environment and the introduction of information-technology networks to isolated rural areas. The purpose is primarily to create new jobs and activities in less-favoured rural areas.
A large number of rural innovations are being presented by their promoters, in particular on the first day of the conference.
The countryside is a priceless natural and human environment capable of making best use of its assets and finding often innovative responses to the serious problems which threaten it. The scale of the conference on 9, 10 and 11 November provides an exceptional opportunity for learning how a new countryside, with all its rich diversity, is setting out resolutely to shape its own future without necessarily copying the pathways already trodden by our towns and cities.