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EU Commissioner for Home Affairs
The rise of right-wing extremism in Europe
'We are the Others' conference/Berlin
27 May 2013
Mr President, Ladies and Gentlemen,
First I would like to thank the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung for organising this conference on a very important subject.
For my entire political life, I have been working against injustice and promoting human rights. Sadly there are still many things happening in Europe right now which we cannot be proud of.
The problem will not go away by itself. We must ensure that it remains high on the agenda. That is why discussions like the one we are having today are so important. And I am very happy also to see the strong stance taken by President Schulz.
I would like to start my remarks by telling you about an event that took place in the European parliament last 27th of January. It was an evening to commemorate the atrocities of Auschwitz. It was a very emotional evening and I would like to thank President Schultz for organizing it. In the beginning of the evening there was a very moving film in black and white.
It showed the horrors committed in the ghetto in Warsaw and elderly survivors were commenting and expressing their feelings, their grief and their guilt about being the only survivor.
Later that evening there was another film, showing young men marching in the street, harassing, beating and screaming to Romas. That movie was in colour. It was from Hungary today.
In recent years, many European countries have been grimly reminded of the threat from right-wing extremism, creating concern that this phenomenon in Europe is on the rise.
We could talk about the attacks in Utöya and Oslo, the discovery of the National Socialist Underground in Germany, and the serial killings of immigrants in Malmö in Sweden as a few examples. It is deeply distressing that examples are so easy to find.
And in particular, the situation in Hungary is a disgrace to Europe. Seeing people with uniforms marching the streets to frighten Romas and having a member of parliament suggesting all people with a Jewish background should be registered for "security reasons" are not isolated events. Such actions are inexcusable, yet they are part of a pattern.
Another country worth mentioning is Greece. The presence of a neo-Nazi party in the parliament is something we cannot ignore. I was in Athens two weeks ago to follow-up on how the country handles migrants and how they can prevent the rising right-wing extremism.
I was horrified by some of the stories they told me including the one of a 14 year old Afghan boy who was terribly beaten by what is alleged to have been a group of right-wing activists.
But the problem also goes far beyond these countries. I am very concerned about the mounting wave of harassment and violence targeting asylum seekers, immigrants and ethnic and sexual minorities in many European Countries.
We have seen the development of islamophobic, anti-Semitic and white supremacist ideology in far right groups which are also anti-democratic, intolerant and conducive to violence. We know how these extreme organisations feed off one another and try to create enmity, suspicion and hatred between communities.
The activity of such groups is, of course, affected by the context of the wider world they operate in. Hand in hand with the economic crisis, xenophobia has worsened.
At the same time, politicians' willingness to speak confidently about the role of immigrants in Europe's society has diminished. I would go further and say that I am really concerned about the way that mainstream politicians blame all kinds of miseries on migration. There is a worrying lack of political leadership and political courage on this issue.
I am also concerned by the international reach and impact of right-wing extremism increasingly operating beyond country borders. We have seen instances of copy-cat violence.
In Poland a man was recently arrested for planning to bomb the Parliament building in Warsaw. He had allegedly been inspired by the Norwegian far-right terrorist Breivik.
Of course, the Internet is also used as a tool for promoting extremist ideologies without being constrained by any borders at all.
The potential for violent extremism exists in all countries. It may manifest itself in different forms, be it right- or left-wing extremism, separatism, religiously motivated or some other kind of extremism, but it always leaves scars on society.
We need a new approach to this. We need better European and international cooperation to develop an understanding on how to solve the challenges presented by extremism.
Cross-border exchange at the European level encourages innovation, and will allow us to act faster.
This must be at the heart of the EU's focus.
So now the question is what the European Union can do? I would say a lot, but today let me outline two issues where the European Union can make a particular difference.
Firstly, we need strong political leadership to condemn extreme violent acts and discourses. We need to refute the claims made by extremists and actively respond to them.
The trial in Munich is one example that gives us the opportunity to reiterate our own values: Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, and equal rights regardless of race, religion or gender.
Setting the direction of this debate, we also have to make the link to a more positive dialogue on migration. Any society which gives way to populism and anti-immigration sentiments ignores the reality that we need migrants.
They enrich our societies, and always have done. If we forget that, if we appeal to populism rather than engaging with the real issues when we discuss migration and integration, we risk fading into a very dangerous rhetoric.
Secondly, early intervention and prevention are the only long term practical solutions to violent extremism.
It is vital to empower civil society to take action at the grass-roots level. We must support initiatives, which increase civil society's capability to tackle the issue.
I'm talking about the practitioners and volunteers who work “on the ground”. They are best positioned to connect with people vulnerable of being drawn into extremist behaviour and political violence.
The Commission launched almost 1.5 years ago the EU Radicalisation Awareness Network – RAN - in 2011. Its aim is to support Member States in finding better ways to counter violent extremism.
This initiative facilitates the sharing of lessons learned between organisations and practitioners across Europe, such as community workers, youth associations, social workers, victims, teachers and community police officers.
Among the over 500 experts all over Europe, I am proud to say that we have several German experts in the network. One of them, Harald Weilnböck, will speak later today, and I also had the chance this morning to visit another of the network's members, the German branch of Exit, which helps people leave extreme groups.
The RAN network met in January for a high-level conference in Brussels, where local level experts met with Justice and Home Affairs Ministers from several EU countries. In the run up to the meeting several working groups presented recommendations for the Ministers to consider.
One policy proposal is to set up programmes in all EU countries to help individuals leave violent political extremist groups. Another is to train local police all over Europe on how to spot early signs of violent behaviour among suspects.
Institutions of course have an important role to play in challenging violent extremism. Schools must be encouraged to engage with local actors, to make use of their materials and to challenge extremism in the classroom.
The increasingly sophisticated use of the Internet and social media as a propaganda tool for violence and extremism adds another challenge.
As a result of law enforcement investigations, a number of right wing extremist internet forums initiating violence and attacks, have been banned or shut down, including some of the most prominent German-language right wing extremist forums.
We need to develop an effective response to violent messages, by supporting the creation of counter-narrative sites to ensure a much greater challenge to extremist ideologies.
One of the RAN working groups is specifically concerned with the use of the Internet and social media. The aim is to develop frontline partnerships with the public, private and voluntary sector to collate, create, and disseminate counter- and alternative-narratives.
The focus is on how the Internet and social media can be used to enhance the reach and impact of such narratives, incorporating efforts to promote a more critical online behavior among young people. This includes using the testimonials of victims and former extremists.
RAN has come a long way in its work, identifying an increasing number of good practices and lessons learned. They now need to be shared widely. Some countries are quite advance, whilst other are slightly behind. Our intention is that these experiences will help in the design of new policy recommendations at all levels: local, national and European.
It is my intention to adopt a European Counter Violent Extremism Programme before the end of the year. This will include a mix of hands-on proposals for all levels and policy recommendations to be fed into the revision of the EU radicalisation strategy.
This will help Member States and the EU institutions to better counter violent extremism. But it is not enough. And here I come back to my first point on what the EU can and should do: support strong political leadership.
We need dedicated discussions at the highest level – meaning the heads of state and government at the European Council – leading up to a joint commitment on how we stop the growing trends of xenophobia and violent extremism in Europe.
I strongly recommend that such a discussion should happen as soon as possible and at least within a year.
The time to act is now – not tomorrow, or when the economic crisis is over. The European Union is built upon shared values and fundamental rights. Let us make sure it remains that way.