Members' Research Service By / November 28, 2022

Preventing radicalisation in the European Union: How EU policy has evolved

The EU’s counter-radicalisation policy dates back to 2004, when the term ‘radicalisation’ was used in a public EU document for the first time. Since then, policy-makers have gone a long way from focusing almost exclusively on jihadist terrorism to adopting a much broader view to take account of various forms of ‘violent extremism’.

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Written by Piotr Bąkowski.

Having originated in national police and intelligence circles in the early 2000s, the concept of ‘radicalisation’ quickly attracted the attention of EU policy-makers and became the framework of choice for analysing what it is that brings individuals and groups to terrorism. There is no uniform definition of radicalisation, even though the academics and institutions involved in tackling this phenomenon have come up with multiple interpretations. Experts tend to describe the radicalisation process as a set of stages and use models to illustrate how someone might go through these stages before becoming a terrorist. They disagree, however, on the role of specific factors in this process, such as ideology. Some have pointed to the undesired consequences of policies targeting radicalisation and questioned the concept’s suitability as a tool to advance our understanding of terrorism.

With the notable exception of rules on terrorist content online, EU action to prevent radicalisation is essentially non-legislative. The EU supports its Member States in countering radicalisation by coordinating their activities and facilitating information sharing and the exchange of best practice. The latter mostly takes places within the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN), an umbrella network connecting ‘first-line practitioners’ – including youth workers, local authority representatives and prison officers – from across the EU. Projects tackling radicalisation receive funding from a range of EU funds and programmes, such as the Internal Security Fund and the EU’s framework programme for research and innovation (Horizon Europe).

The scope of EU activities is very broad, going beyond counter-terrorism policy and extending to areas such as education, employment and social inclusion, to name but a few. However, this comprehensive approach faces competence limitations: some of these areas are outside the EU’s remit, while in others the EU only plays a secondary role, in line with the principle of subsidiarity. Unsurprisingly, the European Commission’s direct engagement with local and regional players – which is characteristic of its counter-radicalisation efforts – has led to tensions with the Member States. Over time, national governments have increasingly demanded a greater say in defining policy priorities. The EU has responded by restructuring the RAN and creating some additional cooperation structures to ensure the Member States’ participation.

The EU’s counter-radicalisation policy has been shaped by broader policy instruments on EU security and counter-terrorism and by strategies specifically targeting radicalisation. Their content has evolved over time to reflect the evolution of the EU terrorism threat landscape since the inception of the EU counter-radicalisation policy. Policy changes have been introduced, as the initial exclusive focus on jihadist terrorism has given way to a broader approach targeting various forms of extremism.

The coronavirus pandemic created a new context that may prove to be a breeding ground for extremism. Groups from various ideological backgrounds have already incorporated COVID-19 into their narratives; furthermore, the pandemic seems to have contributed to the emergence of new ideologies with a potential impact on radicalisation and violence. As internet use has soared, the increased online presence of extremists is particularly problematic, given its potential to exacerbate the already increasing polarisation of opinions. With social media platforms in the spotlight, these groups have been exploring other, less controlled environments. For example, there are reports of online video games being used as a tool for spreading propaganda among young people.

Whereas over the past 20 years the EU has adopted a prolific number of counter-terrorism measures, only recently have the first attempts been made to review and evaluate them. In 2017, the Commission gave a positive assessment of EU efforts to prevent radicalisation, stressing, however, the need to improve the coordination, outreach and impact of existing instruments. One year later, following an audit of the Commission’s counter-radicalisation activities, the European Court of Auditors concluded that the policy objectives and actions had been designed in a way that reflected Member States’ needs, but that there were some shortfalls regarding coordination and evaluation

Read this ‘in-depth analysis’ on ‘Preventing radicalisation in the European Union: How EU policy has evolved‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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