Latest indicators confirm the ongoing structural trends in rural areas across the EU.

The annual report on Rural Development indicators published by the European Commission over Christmas shows that the number of farms declined by 12 per cent between 2007 and 2010.

The average farm size increased to 14.3 ha (against 12.7 ha in 2007) and close to 70 per cent of all farms in the EU still have less than 5 ha of agricultural land, while full-time jobs in agriculture decreased by 16.5 per cent over the same period.

There has also been an increase in the area under organic farming (+6.9 per cent/year between 2006 and 2011), or in the area under protective/protected forest.

The report figures also show a continued improvement in greenhouse gas emissions (though at a slower pace over the last five years) and a decline in nitrogen and phosphorus surpluses and in the concentration of nitrates in surface water.

The report compiles further statistical information on the socio-economic, agricultural and environmental situation of rural areas, while a specific chapter focuses on the implementation of rural development programmes.

Home to 113 million people in the EU, rural areas provide food, raw materials, jobs and numerous environmental goods and services, contributing to the conservation and sustainable use of cultural landscapes, biodiversity, water and soils as well as carbon storage.

The sustainable development of rural areas has been a key objective of the Common Agricultural Policy since the full establishment of Rural Development programmes as the so-called second pillar in 2000.

Meanwhile, the European Commission hasadopted a regulation aimed at raising the ceiling and clarifying the definition of small amounts of aid (de minimis aid) that can be considered not to constitute state aid.

Dacian Cioloş, Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development has confirmed that the his new regulation will give Member States more room for manoeuvre to grant aid without distorting competition, particularly in the event of emergencies, and allow the Commission to simplify dealing with national aid in the agricultural sector

At present aid in the agriculture sector that does not exceed €7 500 per beneficiary over a period of three years or 0.75 per cent of the value of agricultural output established for each Member State is deemed not to distort or threaten to distort competition.

The new regulation, which will apply from 1 January 2014, will bring the amount per beneficiary to €15,000 over a period of three years, and the ceiling per Member State to one per cent of the value of agricultural production. Furthermore, it more clearly defines the types of aid that can be covered by its scope.