After Paris, Europe Faces Renewed Test of Character

A Parisian lights a candle at Le Carillon restaurant, which was the target of one of the November 13th terrorist attacks. Paris, France, November 14. (Owen Franken/Corbis)

The attacks in Paris on November 13th have engendered a familiar response from Europe’s politicians and the general public. There has been more shock and fear, more security, more restrictions on personal liberties, and more police and military activity against those deemed responsible for the violence, whether at home or abroad. Most of these reactions are understandable and even correct under the circumstances, but they are also likely to prove inadequate in guarding against further violence, or in preserving the values that many claim are under attack.

Analysts will now turn to three key questions: Why is this happening? What can be done to curb the trend toward violence as an expression of political aspiration? And, what are the consequences for the European project in the short and long terms?

The proximate causes of the attacks are not hard to determine. Political events in the Middle East—particularly the Syrian civil war and the disintegration of Iraq—coupled with a disaffected European Muslim population and failed immigrant integration policies, have radicalized relatively small groups of individuals. These individuals see their cause as just and have no regard for their own or others’ lives.

In addition, some political forces regard the West as being at war with Islam, either actively, as in Iraq, or passively, through its mode of life. As a result, members of these forces do little to combat the trend towards violence. Furthermore, Islam is at war with itself, with Shia fighting against Sunni, and Salafists against secular Muslims, and these conflicts have also spilled over into Europe.

The first challenge is to understand the consequences of these dynamics. Most importantly, the international community faces significant negative repercussions if it turns against all Muslims. This is true of all regions, but particularly Europe. While states probing terrorist rings to pursue justice is a legitimate response to violence against their citizens, alienating law-abiding Muslim citizens has proven counterproductive since the United States began the so-called War on Terror in 2001. Western-led military intervention against Muslim populations in the Middle East, which has already followed the Paris attacks, compounds the situation.

Indeed, increasing alienation of Muslims is a stated aim of many terrorists, including those of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), which has taken responsibility for the Paris attacks. Governments, especially in France—which has Europe’s highest concentration of Muslims—would be better served by harnessing the cooperation of Muslim communities in the fight against terrorism. While French law prohibits the gathering of such statistics, of the five million Muslims in the country, it is likely that only 25% actively practice the religion, while the majority can be considered culturally Muslim. Only a tiny minority have a hatred of their host country and its mores, and harbor a fanatical belief that they have to kill to prove the point.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, no politician has said that more resources will be devoted to alleviating discrimination, unemployment, and a lack of opportunities for minorities in Europe, regardless of their origin. While integration is a two-way street, host societies have the expertise and resources to allow migrants to marshal the will to commit. In the current state of affairs, estranged minorities are committing atrocities that further alienate host populations. This creates a vicious circle that feeds into the prejudices of right-wing political parties, increasing their legitimacy.

Following the November 13th events, much of the attention has focused on the Brussels commune of Molenbeek-St Jean as a hotbed of radicalism and a source of the Paris attacks. Belgian politicians have admitted that Molenbeeek, along with neighboring commune Anderlecht, has huge problems with unemployment—30% overall and higher for young people—which in turn leads to poverty. However, it is wrong to state, as has been done in English-language media, that it is a lawless place, or that efforts have never been made to alleviate its poverty and petty crime.

Tightened control of radical mosques and stricter application of the law on possession of firearms is certainly overdue within the commune, though Molenbeek is no more dangerous than many other rundown areas of Western cities. There are even signs of gentrification. Indeed, the area could serve as a useful testbed for policies to combat radicalization by creating jobs and economic development. Instead of more security, the Belgian government could implement an investment drive aimed at poorer areas of Brussels, as the French government could in Paris. There is no shortage of expertise in this area. All that may be lacking is political will.

A number of other post-Paris problems loom for European policymakers. The first is to reassess the response implemented as soon as a terrorist attack occurs, of manning borders, stepping up airport security, and placing armed soldiers on city streets. The net result is probably no greater than the public perception that something is being done. For example, before the recent bombing of the Airbus flying from Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt—also connected to ISIS—there had been very little terrorism connected with aviation for several years. And, if airports are to be protected, why not other forms of transportation? Although citizens do not typically oppose increased security, its effectiveness as an allocation of taxpayer money is questionable.

Largely owing to the same instability in the Middle East, the growing terrorist threat has also coincided with what is perhaps the greatest inward migration crisis to face Europe. The major EU achievement of creating a passport-free zone of 26 countries—the Schengen agreement—has undergone stresses and strains as a result of the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees. The Paris attacks have further compromised this agreement through the imposition of security measures at border.

Evelien Brouwer of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam has argued that the refugee crisis is an important test of European states’ capabilities to cooperate and apply shared rules of asylum and migration law, based on the principles of solidarity and mutual trust. Schengen and the EU’s Dublin system for accepting asylum seekers are two important mechanisms of this cooperation, and for which support no longer seems self-evident. Since September 2015, for example, EU member states including Slovenia, Germany, Hungary, Austria, and the Netherlands have reintroduced or reinforced controls at their internal borders in response to the refugee crisis.

Rather than compromise the easy flow of commerce and people across internal borders, the EU could respond to the stresses by increasing resources for its border agency Frontex, to maximize control at the bloc’s external borders. Equally, the Schengen Information System, a database designed to facilitate the exchange of information on security and cross-border criminal activity, could be made more effective in the fight against terrorism.

Fallout from the Paris attacks is likely to exacerbate concerns around the hundreds of thousands of refugees flowing into Europe from Syria in particular. The backlash against Europe’s Muslim citizens is multiplied several times when it comes to refugee populations. This has already been seen with the reaction to the discovery of a passport reportedly used by a Syrian refugee near the body of one of the Parisian bombers. It was seized upon by critics of Europe’s migration policies, even before the full facts had been established. Latest indications are that it was stolen or fake, and possibly deliberately used to disparage refugees.

Even without the terrorist element introduced, finding a solution to the flow of refugees into Europe seems an impossible task. As the crisis drags on, many believe that the continent is in danger of losing a part of its soul, and certainly its moral authority. It has not helped that traditional immigrant countries such as the United States and Australia have largely ignored the situation until now, or that rich Gulf states have refused to use their financial resources to respond to it.

An ideal short-term fix would involve the international community working together to alleviate pressure in hotspots such as the Greek Islands, the Hungarian border, and Calais. It would provide and coordinate the requisite financing and those best able to deliver on-the-ground help, including the United Nations refugee agency and numerous other effective non-governmental organizations.

Larger projects will need to include agreement on a common EU asylum system, and the revision of the Geneva Convention, which is the basis for international law on refugee rights, but is no longer fit for purpose. An effective renegotiation would introduce concepts like “safe havens,” “safe third countries,” and rules for processing asylum applications nearer crisis points. In the short term, its signatories should agree to new emergency rules. While any change to the Geneva Convention will be fiercely contested by civil society organizations, they have a choice between keeping a system that no longer works, or creating a more flexible one that will.

Some have advanced the view that ISIS has fomented the refugee crisis in order to sow dissent in Europe. It might at least have tried to stir up the Syrian war to amplify it. More plausibly, the groups’ militants could have infiltrated into the crowds of refugees—as they have claimed they would—though, as the passport case attests, this requires further study.

Regardless, the fact remains that many of the roots of Europe’s radicalization threat and migrant crisis lay in the same place, namely the war in Syria. A solution should therefore be sought with renewed vigor by all parties involved. While various diplomatic attempts have failed, there is no hope that time and exhaustion will stop the war. Moreover, purely military solutions such as those currently being pursued by France against ISIS, carry the risk of exacerbating both of Europe’s crises.

As the recent history of the nuclear deal with Iran shows, even seemingly intractable states such as Iran and Russia can eventually be brought to the negotiating table. In a statement in Paris on November 17th, US Secretary of State John Kerry expressed a new degree of optimism in this regard, indicating there was the possibility of an agreement to end the war coming within weeks.

This progress is at least partly due to a dampening of Moscow’s enthusiasm for its largely unilateral involvement in Syria to date. It appears more willing to cooperate with Western partners following the acknowledgment that the Russian-registered airliner downed in Egypt was destroyed by a bomb, in an attack claimed by an ISIS affiliate. Momentum from the international reaction to Paris has also helped.

What a negotiated end to the Syrian war would mean for the future of ISIS and other extremist movements is not immediately clear, though it would at least allow the international community and Syrians themselves to divert attention and resources from other violent fronts. It could, on the other hand, provide a degree of instant relief in the refugee crisis, provided that a solid pathway to rebuilding and reconciling the country can be agreed.

For Europe, the ongoing challenge will be to preserve its essential character as it fights the two interlinked challenges of increased Islamic radicalization and the growing refugee crisis on its doorstep. Speaking on the latter task, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker recently remarked that there “there is not enough Europe in this union, and there is not enough union in this union.” The continent’s proud liberal democracies face a stern test of their resolve, amid a growing backlash at threats that are both real and perceived.

Richard Lewis is a Senior Research Fellow, Migration and Diversity, at the Institute for European Studies, Vrije Universiteit Brussel.