Esteemed Colleagues, Ladies, and Gentlemen,
On behalf of the EU Head of Delegation and Ambassador David O'Sullivan, I would like to thank The Middle East Institute and the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique for organizing this conference and for their efforts in leading this dialogue on countering violent extremism.
Let me start with an example that stresses how significant this issue is. Two years ago, when I arrived at the EU delegation, our first major team assignment was to select the themes on which we would work with U.S. think tanks for the next two years. At that time, the focus was not so much on Russia and the Ukraine, on nuclear negotiations with Iran, or on the rise of ISIS. Rather, it was about changes in Egypt, the debate about strikes on Syria because of chemical weapons, and about encouraging the Middle East peace process.
This shows how hard it is to predict tomorrow’s challenges in foreign policy, but I should underline how everyone on our team unanimously agreed that countering violent extremism was one of the key themes we had to examine with think tanks. If you look at the news today, be it the result of the investigation of the Gaza war, the U.S. presence in Iraq, or the flogging of a blogger in Saudi Arabia, it is evident that extremism is a threat that permeates many layers of international and societal relations.
The first dimension we tend to look at is the security one. This has specific urgency in the EU, where large immigrant populations' sometimes difficult integration has made it clear that we have not always implemented the best policies in this regard.
The results of the 9/11 commission of inquiry, which defined the extremist security threat as a stateless network of terrorism, also alluded to the fact that there is indeed a radicalization ideology that is gaining ground. This notion was accepted in 2001, and now that we are in 2015, we can see that this ideology has grown even more dangerous.
Another reason why we in the EU have been focusing on the topic of violent extremism is because it has been, in some respects, an indirect consequence of globalization and of our attempts at opening economies around the world. In the EU we have norms, rules, and endless discussions on how to open the world. What we strive for are values that can be acceptable to everyone, because if we manage to get an agreement between 28 nations, we have hopes that the rest of the world will agree as well.
Globalization, however, can threaten identity, and we are not oblivious of that phenomenon. That is why, when we are working on globalization, we should not lose sight of countering extremism. In this regard, we should all remember that we are not seeing extremism as characteristic of one religion, but more as a widespread phenomenon related to changes and identity. I do not need to dwell on extremism of Catholics, of Hindus (the 2002 attacks), or of Buddhists (on Rohingyas in Myanmar) to qualify extremism as something that all societies have to face.
When we realize that globalization's impact on local identities is an element of rising extremism, we have to start our process by combining global approaches and local responses, something today's conference's title aptly captures.
In terms of challenges in countering extremism, the first one to mention is how complex it is for any democracy, including the EU's member states, to combine its values with actions against extremism. We have to have traction with the people who are interested in extremism, but at the same time, we should not have to deny our values. This means that we have to assess each of our actions to ensure that we are combating rather than fuelling extremism. Often, it is clear that labelling ourselves as the “international community” while others label us as an EU-U.S. diktat will prove counterproductive. In other words, the EU and the U.S. have different forms of legitimacy and presence in the region, and they need to articulate the way joint efforts are organized. So this conference can only help our common reflection in that area.
Dealing with extremism involves both a pragmatic and preventive approach. Concerning the former, the EU has an internal security strategy that relies on sharing a high degree of information between its member states and third parties. This encourages police cooperation and boosts training and funding in all security-related endeavors.
There are two elements crucial in the spread of radicalization: finance and the use of online community tools. First, the financing circuit, that is, the means that are available to radical proponents, is staggering. We have not adapted our methods to handle these new means of fundraising. Second, with the online community, we are looking at the power the Internet has in attracting young people in quest of a meaning in life, in getting an identity. It’s not just about Twitter feeds, and we won't solve everything by asking to shut down Facebook networks. It is much more far-reaching: it includes all means to interact with widespread proportions of the population and the values that can be conveyed online, including through video-games. Clearly, this is one of the areas where Europe’s administration needs to keep more up to date.
Regarding prevention, the first thing that is fundamental is to gain a clearer time perspective. We are in a democratic system in which our political leaders have a mandate limited to four to five years at a time, which is not much to produce results against extremism. Since the rise of extremism in the 1990s, we have seen 25 years of continuous and fast growth, and I do not believe that we have reached the peak yet. It would be illusory to think that the decline in extremism will be far faster than the rise has been. As a result, we have a time dimension that is very difficult to cope with as an administration that has mandate limitations and annual budgets. Even if multi-program plans exist, they do not take into account the fact that extremism is a problem that may transcend our generation. Therefore, what we are doing with education, for example, is to look at particularly vulnerable populations. Additionally, we are trying to empower women, who generally have shown more common sense in the realm of radicalization. We are trying to involve the private sector, as financing online communities involves banks and telecom companies. We are looking at all possible drivers, such as poverty, marginalization, and government corruption—anything that may be resented more by the less fortunate communities. Another major preventive action, and a fundamental one, is to solve conflict. At the moment, the EU is trying energetically to support the UN process in Libya, to support any possible negotiations in Syria, and it has a mandate to negotiate with Iran.
Linking all these factors, it is now time to turn to the first of three panels. Without further do, I would like to congratulate the two organizations who are hosting this conference, and thank them in advance for the expertise they can provide in discussing these issues with a far-sighted perspective.