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Network Definitions and Diversity

Networks as rural development policy tools

Networks and networking are well-established EU rural development policy tools and have supported the LEADER approach for many years. Two complementary levels of formal networking were established under both LEADER II and LEADER+ with national networking units (NNUs) established at Member State level, and a European networking unit - the LEADER Observatory – established at EU level.

Experiences of networking in LEADER were very positive. Networking was observed to play a useful role in stimulating new ideas and sharing the growing body of rural development knowledge and practice, whilst also contributing to the governance of the LEADER programme. It was therefore decided to introduce networking as an obligatory activity into Pillar 2 of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for the 2007–2013 programming period.

In accordance with Articles 67 and 69 of EAFRD Regulation No. 1698 / 2005, it was required for:

  • each Member State to establish a national rural network (NRN) which groups together the organisations and administrations involved in rural development at national and regional level, and;
  • the European Commission to establish the European Network for Rural Development (ENRD) to bring national networks, organisations and administrations active in the field of rural development together at EU level.

A total of over €515 million was committed to the operation of NRNs and the ENRD during the 2007-2013 programming period (best available data – November 2011) - of which an estimated €268 million came from the EAFRD (less than 0.3% of total EAFRD funding) and €247 million from national co-financing. The first NRNs became fully operational in the spring of 2007 and the ENRD was officially launched in 2008.

In addition to the European Network for Rural Development (ENRD), there are several other examples of policy networks initiated by the European Commission, including:

  • FARNET – the European Fisheries Areas Network focused on supporting implementation of Axis 4 of the European Fisheries Fund (EFF);
  • The Enterprise Europe Network - a network to help small enterprises to make the most of the business opportunities in the European Union;
  • URBACT - a network programme to improve the effectiveness of sustainable integrated urban development policies in Europe, and;
  • INTERACT - a Territorial Cooperation programme co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund and based largely upon the networking of the EU regions.
  • EIP-AGRI Network – to support the European Innovation Partnership for agricultural productivity and sustainability and to enable the networking of operational groups, advisory services and researchers.

The European Evaluation Network for Rural Development (abbreviated to Evaluation Expert Network) also provides support for improving the quality and efficiency of evaluation of Rural Development Programmes (RDPs) in EU Member States for the period of 2007-2013.



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Formally-constructed policy networks are increasingly important for supporting policy-making and good governance, and recognised as powerful tools for improving coherence and cooperation in modern public policies.

In its 2001 White Paper on European Governance, the European Commission committed to, “…a more systematic and pro-active approach to working with key networks to enable them to contribute to decision shaping and policy execution.” Consequently, policy networks are now widely used by the European Union and its Member States in all policy areas and for many functions. They are considered particularly important for extending the reach of policymakers to involve a wider range of actors and stakeholders in policy debates, and for providing the flexibility to deal with the wide diversity that exists between administrative cultures and structures in the EU-27.

According to the 2001 White Paper, “…the EU’s legitimacy today depends on involvement and participation. This means that the linear model of dispensing policies from above must be replaced by a virtuous circle, based on feedback, networks and involvement from policy creation to implementation at all levels”.

Rural networking can be very challenging because of the huge number of rural actors and stakeholders operating at different levels in a multitude of different socio-economic contexts and with a broad spectrum of needs, priorities, interests and expectations. The essential elements for networking as a rural development policy tool are therefore more comprehensive and demanding than those found in many other EU policy networks.

Six key elements can be identified in the on-going evolution of a National Rural Network as an effective rural development policy tool. While these elements remain the same for each NRN, the differing nature and maturity of the networks has led to a diverse range of actions being delivered under each element. The six key elements include:

  1. Effective stakeholder engagement;
  2. Building a common understanding of common policies;
  3. Collection, analysis and dissemination of good practices;
  4. Exchange of relevant experience and know-how amongst rural stakeholders and actors;
  5. Capacity building and training, and;
  6. Cooperation and joint actions, including specific attention to promoting cooperation between Local Action Groups (LAGs).

See also ‘Added Value of Networking Stories’ here classified according to these key elements.

Resources and Further Reading

Last update: 27/02/2014 | Top