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Building a ‘highway to Brussels’ from the EU’s rural regions

Spanning four years, the SHERPA project aimed to connect rural European communities with decision-making at a local level. Encouraging open conversations and idea-sharing between stakeholders, it enabled local knowledge to inform policies on issues such as climate change, land use and the diversification of the rural economy.

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Rural areas make up almost half of the EU territories, and are home to 137 million people. Yet these areas face a range of environmental and socio-economic challenges, from climate change impacts to a lack of critical infrastructure.

The SHERPA project’s objective was to gather knowledge to support improved policy recommendations for rural areas. The project established 41 local groups, comprising 630 people from 20 different countries all across Europe. These Multi-Actor Platforms (MAPs) served as open fora for the exchange of ideas and discussion.

Olivier Chartier, the project coordinator and director of policy and research at Ecorys consultancy, explains: “The project SHERPA aimed to establish a highway between local territories and Brussels. It demonstrated the possibility for people living in rural areas and communities to interact directly at European Union level.”

By collecting information on local issues, SHERPA created a two-way exchange that was fundamental to the project’s vision of driving sustainable rural development through informed policy decisions.

It also allowed for tailored discussions and insights specific to each area, ensuring that policy recommendations truly resonated with the realities and needs of the communities they aimed to serve.

“What was important was discovering at grassroots the needs of the people living in these areas, and then communicating them,” Chartier notes. “And not only the needs, but also the actions needed to be taken to improve conditions and make changes in the territories.”

From Wallonia in Belgium to Scotland, and from Iași in Romania to Portugal’s Alqueva region, a discussion paper was translated and disseminated to each of the MAPs for debate at local level. The conclusions and recommendations from these meetings were then passed on to a MAP at the EU level, and consolidated into a paper used to inform policy.


Central to the success of SHERPA was establishing a link between science, society and policy – something that had long been missing from previous interfaces. And the MAPs proved invaluable in closing this gap.

To ensure that all three aspects were represented, each forum included scientists, policymakers and local stakeholders. This approach guaranteed that knowledge from researchers reached decision makers, and that the real-world experiences of local people informed science and policy.

As Chartier says: “Civil associations, researchers and decision makers – they were all at the table together discussing a topic to be agreed on, to gather evidence to shape local concerns and policy priorities. Collaboration was key. Without this project, it could not have happened.”

It was this shared consensus that informed debates on 10 different topics over the project’s lifespan, tackling issues such as climate change and land use, the social dimension in rural areas, and the diversification of the rural economy.

Though SHERPA drew to a close in September 2023, it is by no means the end of the story. Interactions between science, society and policy will continue after the end of the project in many MAPs. In Belgium, the Minister of Rural Affairs in Wallonia intends to integrate the SHERPA platform into annual meetings organised by the local government and researchers.

Another significant outcome is its contribution to the EU’s ongoing long-term vision for rural areas initiative, which aims to make our rural areas stronger, connected, resilient and more prosperous.

But perhaps the most significant result is that the MAPs have formed solid and lasting bonds that will continue to influence policy developed by those that will benefit from it most.

As Chartier concludes: “With SHERPA, we have created communities that will live far beyond the project – because there are so many relationships that have been established. A network has been created, and now it’s all about people.”

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Project details

Project acronym
Project number
Project coordinator: Belgium
Project participants:
United Kingdom
Total cost
€ 4 999 747
EU Contribution
€ 4 999 747
Project duration

See also

More information about project SHERPA

All success stories