The European Business Council for Africa

On 12 November, President Charles Michel sent out the fourth issue of his newsletter, in which he informs citizens about the activities of the European Council. This time the President focuses on promoting our values and fighting terrorism.

There are two battles that must be fought. A battle of values, to defend and promote our freedoms... and a merciless operational battle against violent extremism, whether Islamist or otherwise.

President Charles Michel

The newsletter is issued on a regular basis in English and French. It is available to all users subscribed to European Council alerts. Every issue contains a summary of President Michel's latest activities.

A word from President Michel, 12 November 2020

Dear readers,

Once again, Europe has been struck by violent Islamist extremism. Three attacks in three weeks: two in France, one in Austria. That makes 11 attacks this year. Once again, innocent victims have been killed or injured, families shattered by grief and a feeling of almost preposterous injustice. Once again, our societies have witnessed an attack on their security and on their fundamental values of freedom, tolerance and respect.

And once again, these attacks are beginning another vicious circle. One where the attack motivated by Islamist extremism engenders mistrust towards Muslims. In turn, that mistrust causes resentment among some Muslims, both in our societies and in the Muslim world. This frustration, inflamed and exploited by extremists, inspires new criminals or fanatics to take action.

Our first duty is to safeguard our citizens. Then, we must halt the progression in which misunderstanding leads to mistrust, and mistrust to hatred. And replace it with a circle of the opposite kind: dialogue, understanding, trust. That is the point of the in-depth telephone conversations – and of my visit to Egypt – which I initiated with the leaders of Arab countries after the attacks. That is also the approach which must prevail in our internal debates in the European Union.

And we must act. There are two battles that must be fought. A battle of values, to defend and promote our freedoms: freedom of thought, freedom to believe or not to believe, freedom to practise religion with tolerance and respect for European values. And a merciless operational battle against violent extremism, whether Islamist or otherwise.

Neither of these lines of action is simple. But there is a principle that needs to be reaffirmed. It is simple and indisputable: it is the absolute primacy of the civil law that has been debated and adopted by our national and European representative democratic institutions. This law applies to everyone, and no other law outranks it in our democratic societies.

The battle of values

Terrorist attacks kill and injure people. But they target the fundamental values of our societies. Values like tolerance and respect for diversity, which mean we can believe, or not, in one God or another, without fear or threat. These values allow different ideas and beliefs to coexist and interact peacefully in pluralistic societies. Religious extremism would have us believe that this value system is incompatible with religions, that it even threatens them. But the opposite is true.

Like all the monotheistic religions, Islam has been a part of Europe’s history for centuries. And in many European countries, Muslims – both practising and non-practising – are an integral part of our societies. They make a lively contribution to economic, social, political, cultural and educational life.

Religious, and in particular Islamist, extremism targets this. It fosters division and foments terrorism among a tiny minority reared within our own societies. Concrete actions must be taken to put a stop to this. Starting with the fight against racism, xenophobia and all forms of discrimination which fuel frustration. We must also provide a better grounding in values. Particularly among young people with a migrant background and new arrivals. And when the limits of that fundamental work are reached, we must be better able to prevent radicalisation.
This work must be supported by strengthened efforts, coordinated at European level, to combat opaque, foreign funding of Islamist extremism, and the dissemination of problematic content, in particular Salafist content.

Lastly, the training given to imams practising in Europe does not sufficiently take into account our fundamental values, in particular freedom of thought and gender equality. The values of tolerance, openness and the rule of law must be upheld without compromise A few years ago, ideas were floated of supporting Muslim initiatives to promote an Islam which unequivocally embraces European values. Setting up one or more educational and training institutions for training imams was another idea. The EU can, and in my view must, support and give such initiatives a chance, including by networking them.

The operational battle

Alongside this intensive action within our societies, Europe needs to step up the actual fight against terrorism. Considerable progress has already been made since the attacks in Paris and Brussels. Member States and their security and police services now cooperate and exchange information intensively. Terrorist financing is much better tracked and the acquisition of firearms is better regulated. Finally, tools for detecting dangerous individuals at our external borders have been developed.

But a number of projects that have already been launched now need to be implemented, and others are expected to be launched soon. Top priority is the internet, which is the main forum for radicalisation, as the latest attacks have shown once more. The most urgent task is to adopt, without delay, the EU regulation on the removal of terrorist content online, which has been under negotiation for two years between the EU institutions; it includes an obligation for internet platforms to remove terrorist content that has been reported to them within one hour.

We also have high hopes for the legislative package on digital services which is expected to be presented by the European Commission in December. In particular, this ambitious legislation - which has not been changed since 2003 - should oblige platforms to take greater responsibility for any terrorist or hateful content or disinformation that they disseminate and amplify through their recommendation algorithms. Another concrete example: online gaming platforms have also become drivers of radicalisation and strategic communication. The new legislative framework and a robust dialogue with the operators concerned should make it possible to deal with this phenomenon.

Security in the Schengen area

The other priority area is protection of the Schengen area. There too we have made progress. The new European Border and Coast Guard will be working at the external borders from January. The information systems have been improved or updated, for example with the new database that will soon be registering entries and exits of third-country nationals entering the Schengen area with visas, and the ETIAS authorisation system for those who can enter the area without a visa.

However, the operational possibilities for cross-checking between these systems by the competent services, including Frontex, are still far from optimal. Not enough biometric checks are being carried out. Too many suspects are managing to slip through the net.

Schengen area security also has an internal component which needs strengthening: we need to find ways to identify and apprehend suspects once they are inside the area, and to bring them to justice. And people reported for violent radicalisation need to be tracked. That will include strengthening Europol’s powers and resources, finalising European legislation on access to digital evidence, and enabling access to encrypted data and metadata.

We now need to step up our efforts on these lines of action. Democracies have the noble task of protecting security whilst respecting the rule of law and fundamental freedoms. Our interior ministers will be discussing this on Friday. And we will take stock of the progress made at our next summit in December.

Charles Michel

Source: European Council