The Covid-19 pandemic has “presented a unique opportunity” to reinvent and reimagine rural communities, according to MEP Colm Markey.

The Midlands North West MEP was speaking in the European Parliament during a debate yesterday (Thursday, March 11) with the European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development Janusz Wojciechowski on the long-term vision for rural areas.

Commenting afterwards, the Fine Gael MEP said: “Generations of skilled and talented people have left rural areas to pursue opportunities elsewhere.

The pandemic has taught us that many can remain in their own communities by taking advantage of remote or blended working. We can reverse the ‘brain drain’ and turn it into the ‘brain gain’.

The MEP made the case that attracting young people back to their villages “could make an enormous impact” on community and economic life.

However, he stressed that the correct infrastructure must be in place such as remote working hubs and broadband.

“It is crucial that the National Broadband Plan continues with urgency so that every home, farm and business in the country is connected,” he added.

Highlighting the need to look at ways to revitalise our towns and villages, he said:

A retrofitting programme, for example, would see many derelict buildings restored and allow for ‘over-the-shop’ accommodation. This could be achieved through the EU’s new ‘renovation wave’, which aims to make buildings more energy efficient.

“It is one of a number of schemes that could be blended together to breathe life back into our towns and villages.

“Now is the time to embrace the green and digital transition and create desirable places for people to live, work and visit.”

Markey added that the EU Green deal has already presented economic opportunities.

Renewable energy, for example, is win-win for rural Ireland. In August, contacts were approved for 63 solar and 19 wind projects under the Renewable Electricity Support Scheme [RESS].

These projects, he said, are expected to create about 10,500 constructions jobs and 1,100 additional permanent jobs in rural Ireland.

“The RESS is crucial to achieving the EU-wide renewable energy target of 32% by 2030 and I look forward to further approvals in the months and years ahead.”

Markey concluded, stating: “The current crisis has shown us that there is a different way of doing things and we can re-set the clock. If we don’t seize this opportunity, we may never get the chance again.”