Since the beginning of the 1990s, the Leader programme has been hailed as the instrument of rural policy that most explicitly takes account of the territorial dimension. This culminated in the mainstreaming of its underlying concept into the Rural Development Programmes of the current period (2007–2013), with the aim of having more effective policy implementation that considers the diversified needs of rural regions. Starting from analysis of the application and delivery of Leader under the present Rural Development Programme in two EU countries, Austria and Ireland, this paper presents an assessment of the effects of this programme change. In addition, it includes the EU-wide discussion on the (limited) effectiveness of the current implementation of Leader and the search for a reorientation towards local development activities in the EU’s reform proposals. The paper frames the analysis around the notion of social innovation, a concept of central importance to the aims of Leader. It is argued that the implementation of Leader in this period falls far behind its potential to beneficially impact rural regions; hence it should be an object of critical debate in the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and rural development measures, as well as coherence analyses with other policies, beyond 2013.

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