Dennis Sammut, Director LINKS Europe
Amid all the turmoil of the pandemic, and the economic fallout from it, and the controversies emerging on race relations on both sides of the Atlantic, a document released by Brussels on 15 June received little attention. “The Council conclusions on EU External Action on Preventing and Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism” is however an important statement of the will of the EU member states and institutions to remain focused on the threat of terrorism which remains as real as ever, and on the need to stem the process of radicalisation by working with partners both inside the EU and beyond it.
Brussels documents are often coated in official jargon making them difficult to follow, and there is some of this in this document too. But surprisingly, given the complexity of the topic, this document reflecting the position of the EU member states is clear and to the point. “Council Conclusions” are meant to reflect an agreed position of the EU member states on different policy issues. The European Commission, and where appropriate as in this case, the European External Action Service (EEAS), are then meant to turn these agreed positions into practical action.
Early on this latest document “recalls that security at home depends on peace and stability beyond the EU’s borders”. It calls “for further strengthening of the EU’s external counter-terrorism engagement and action in the priority geographic and thematic fields”. These conclusions highlight the threats from terrorism, focus on where the EU should invest geographically, pinpoint the priority areas for action, and underscore the importance of enhanced international cooperation. It identifies the Western Balkans, North Africa and the Middle East (MENA) region, the Sahel region, and the Horn of Africa as the key areas where efforts need to focus on.
Whilst in practice this prioritisation has been going on for some time spelling this out clearly is both an acceptance of a reality, as well as of a heightened ambition to be more proactive and resolute. The EU has long since identified the Western Balkans as a priority and many of the countries in the region have been given a membership perspective. But there has been in recent years a disquiet that the fragile situation in Bosnia Herzegovina may unravel, and concerns about Russian mischief making in Montenegro and elsewhere. On the Sahel the EU is supporting the establishment of the Takuba Taskforce, and its remit to engage through a wide range of tools with the increasing jihadist threat in the region. In the Horn of Africa, the EU is a major provider of humanitarian aid.
With regards to the MENA region EU policy often appears muddled. The EU’s neighbourhood policy addresses some aspects of relations with North Africa and the Levant. But huge challenges in Libya, Syria and Iraq, and increasingly Lebanon and the Palestinian territories is going to require that this engagement be stepped up, including in areas related to counter terrorism and de radicalisation.
The EU’s policy vis-à-vis the Gulf region is work in progress, and there is an urgent need to upgrade the political side of this relationship. The latest Council conclusions emphasise the need to work with partners in the neighbourhood. There is a sense that in this regard a lot of potential remains untapped. Whilst some member states have long standing and deep relations with some of the countries in the MENA region, beyond the Mediterranean the EU remains a recent arrival.
It is somewhat strange that the Caucasus region is not listed among the priority areas, given its proximity to the EU. Possibly the risk is not considered high enough. But one needs to keep in mind the number of Azerbaijanis, Muslim Georgians and Chechens who went to fight for Daech, and even the repatriation of what remains from this group and their dependants is a challenge that needs addressing.
More broadly however this need is recognised. “The EU stands ready to further assist priority partner countries, which are the most impacted by the ‘returnees’ phenomenon, in order to help them bring perpetrators to justice, address radicalisation leading to violent extremism and terrorism in prisons, and support rehabilitation and reintegration activities, including of family members, as well as specialised services for returning children”, it states
Adopting a “whole of society approach”
The European Union is built on values, and despite the shortcomings that exist within it, remains a beacon for these values. It is therefore no surprise that the Council in its conclusions stressed “that all counter-terrorism measures must be conducted in full compliance with EU core values, including the rule of law, and in full compliance with international law, in particular international human rights law, humanitarian law and international refugee law”.
The latest EU document on counter terrorism and de radicalisation recognises the need to adopt a “whole of society approach” which requires dealing with the underlying conditions conducive to terrorism and radicalisation, consistent outreach to vulnerable populations and close cooperation with youth, children, women, civil society, human rights defenders and victims of terrorism remains a key to success. The EU states that “involving civil society organisations in countering terrorism and preventing violent extremism remains of utmost importance for a successful approach. It is also important to continue addressing the spread of violent extremist narratives and to further promote interfaith and intercultural dialogue”.
This emphasis on broadening the base in the struggle against terrorism and radicalisation is the main theme of the new document, and this is to be welcomed. However, on far too many occasions the EU is able to diagnose a problem, and even offer the remedy, but somehow mismanages the delivery of that remedy because of too much importance being attached to process, and not enough to result. This is an area where this must not be allowed to happen.
The Council in its conclusions has also called for a specific effort to be made to assess the potential influence of the coronavirus pandemic and its consequences on terrorist activities as well as on the prevention and countering of terrorism, and to identify possible targeted EU action. Hopefully the EEAS and other EU agencies will engage with this task as a priority.
Terrorism and radicalisation have taken a back stage during the last months as world attention focused on coronavirus. But the threat that they pose to societies in Europe, as well as in regions around it and in the wider world has not decreased. This latest document from the European Union makes this amply clear.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.