Global Extremes

How prevention of right-wing extremism in Europe goes wrong

Why is inter-agency cooperation between government and civil society failing in Europe’s policy making, for the prevention of violent extremism?

Harald Weilnböck
5 October 2020
Polish far right protester wearing the white supremacist version of the Celtic Cross during a far right march in Gdansk, Poland on 5 September 2020
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Picture by Michal Fludra/NurPhoto/PA Images. All rights reserved
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Everybody speaks about evaluation and good practice in preventing violent extremism (PVE). But nobody wants to talk about good and bad governance in PVE policy making and program design. For example: Inter-agency-cooperation between state and civil society! It’s crucial for good governance! Everybody claims inter-agency cooperation – promising to set us “on eye level with our policy makers”. But inter-agency is messed up all the time. And nobody dares to address this in any degree of openness.

Why is inter-agency cooperation between government and civil society so crucial for good governance in PVE? It’s like with parents and kids. Parents have the power, they are the policy makers. What they say and how they behave defines what is policy. On the other side, the kids are the practitioners who are supposed to implement the policies and thus create future – and peaceful and prosperous community. Hence, parents and kids are in an inter-agency-cooperation, and much depends on how well they do this.

The task is not easy! Parents sometimes really mess things up a lot! They tell nonsense, insist on it, act egotistically, delude themselves, don’t respond to their kids – and dismiss them, in case the kids tell them off. That is if the kids of such parents have miraculously kept the ability to tell their parents off. Because normally, these kids are at risk of being driven towards mental illness, drug use – or towards violent extremism, as studies on parenting styles have shown.

Recently, the European Commission (EC) and its Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN), i.e. the ’parents’, have been messing it up big time! – at great expense for the ’kids’/ practitioners who do the work in the field.

The EC is governmental and the RAN is supposed to represent independent civil society and practitioners – at least this was the idea ten years ago. Of course, this cannot really work when civil society is represented by a consulting firm (in this case, the Radar Group Inc., providing the RAN secretariat) that is chosen and financed by and thus entirely dependent on the EC.

But the bigger the mess the better; because, if we catch it early enough the mess then may become a ’lesson learnt’ – and we love ’lessons learnt’, don’t we!

Unsurprisingly, the incident which set off this mess had touched upon the biggest taboo and ‘family secret’ in the European PVE area since decades: right-wing extremism (RWE) – our one and only true ’home-grown’ violent extremism. An incident unfolded within some RadPol2020 video-recorded webinars on the ’Radicalisation in Countries of Central and Eastern Europe’ (CEE) organized by the Polish Platform of Homeland Security.

What happened? In one webinar, an EC representative (i.e. the ‘mother’) and a RAN staff person (i.e. the ‘father’) spoke – followed by many practitioners of first-line field work in prevention (i.e. the ‘kids’, engaged in shaping future communities). Here, the EC person began by emphasizing that “Jihadist terrorism remains to be the main threat in Europe today”. Remember: this is in a webinar about Central and Eastern Europe!

In terms of right-wing extremism the EC person added that “we are speaking here of lone actors” and that this “has been a problem in some member states” (only) whereupon she referred to Germany, Sweden – also to New Zealand. Furthermore, it was said that right-wing extremism today is “sort of a global issue … on the internet”, while “cultural and historical pasts of countries” are of no big importance. After some talk about hate speech, the speaker closed by saying that the EC’s “primary focus is on Jihadist extremism”.

We need to formulate and agree on principles and guidelines of good governance in Prention of Violence Extremism policy making

Again, the ’kids’ around in this webinar were first-line practitioners from CEE countries. For them Jihadism is no topic whatsoever – except when their politicians pretend it is, and then routinely suggest that refugees from Syria are (Islamist) terrorists (while such refugees practically don’t exist in CEE), which is a common habit in CEE populism that, in the end, effectively supports right-wing extremism instead of preventing it. Hence, in this webinar the ’kids’ – who cannot help but work in preventing right-wing extremism in CEE – were effectively dismissed, ignored, and even abused in a way. Because this ’parent’ told nonsense, insisted on it, possibly even deluded herself but in any event acted out of egotistical or idiosyncratic reasons – and certainly not “on eye level” – while also causing quite some damage to PVE in Europe.

Now, what about the ‘father’ – the RAN senior advisor who spoke directly afterwards? Well, he tried to mitigate a little – but really ended up acting like a co-abusive second parent, as it so often happens. First of all, the RAN person reinforced that right-wing extremism is mostly a lone actors issue, adding that there is hardly any knowledge yet about radicalisation in CEE, brought some Europol numbers suggesting that there is no problem at all in CEE in this respect – hence, quite some nonsense here, too.

In some fleeting moment towards the close of the presentation, he suddenly murmured something about “taboo and denial” and about “lone actors in a swarm” – which was also funny, for a moment. But in the end he called upon local practitioners in CEE “to step forward more” in terms of right-wing extremism (!) which is odd and really equals a cruel betrayal of one’s ’kids’. Because these ’kids’/ practitioners have been “stepping forward” all the time anyhow and – in Poland and Hungary – are doing so at tremendous risk for their personal safety and wellbeing; while the EC and RAN comfortably sit back in Brussels and Amsterdam and happily refrain from what good parents should at least be doing: confront and correct each other, so that egotistical nonsense abates and inter-agency cooperation does not fall apart even more.

Now, what did the poor ’kids’/ practitioners do? Well, they are used to this kind of abuse and they are smart – not yet driven into mental illness, or into drug abuse or psychosomatic clinics, at least I hope so. Basically these practitioners politely said nothing, knowing full well that they could not really do much, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. The more comfortable West European practitioners generally do not say anything either. They rather begin doing business with the EC/ RAN and earn money and power – hence, sort of doing the Trump-thing, which “is a shame”, to use Trump’s own words.

Other than that, there usually is at least this one neurotic chap who always says something. He indeed was around and voiced some critique in the follow-up webinar the next week. But this chap doesn’t count because this was me – and I had already written the notorious RAN essay in 2018 and neither the EC nor RAN responded ever since.

All in all, it seems that a huge heap of ‘EU added damage’ has been piled up – or else the tip of an iceberg became visible, because these things have been going on for long with no sign of redemption in view.

How then can we make a ’lesson learnt’ out of all this? Many things can and need to be done: Of course, first of all, this incident would need to be talked through in whatever suitable setting, part of which would be public. Then a sense of the degree of damage that was created here and in similar instances should be developed – and unanimously acknowledged. Together with an awareness of how systemic these cases of bad PVE governance and inter-agency cooperation are. In addition, some empirical research on similar failures of governance and inter-agency cooperation could be helpful. Consequently, we need to formulate and agree on principles and guidelines of good governance in PVE policy making (which some of us have already drafted, unpublished). One key principles certainly would be to treat the issue of violent extremism in a strictly non-partisan manner.

Then, logically, there needs to be training for policy makers on all levels of all member states on how to practice good governance in PVE policy and inter-agency cooperation. Well, I see some of my readers rubbing their eyes in disbelief! Yes, the training of policy makers! I told you it is not going to be easy! And field practitioners need training on this, too, which isn’t entirely easy either.

But in any event, we can bet on the European Commission. The EC will sure be eager to set the standard and be the first to support the design of and the enroll in such training themselves.

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