Leaders gather in Paris for unity march. But what does it mean for EU politics?

Many European leaders and politicians attend unity march in Paris after the attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine. It is an important gesture, but what do you expect from Europe, from the EU in terms of real steps, would you say this attack could influence European politics and society somehow profoundly? Read few comments.

Michael Johns, Associate Professor of Political Science, Laurentian University

You are right, participating in a march is purely symbolic and would have no long term impact if it doesn’t serve as a catalyst for change in the EU.

What will be important is for the EU to identify exactly what the problem it has before it goes about trying to solve it. My concern is that people will just assume the EU has a radicalized Islam problem or an immigration problem. While obviously these are real issues they are part of a larger issue which is the EU has a “social cohesion” problem.

The EU needs to find a way to work on social cohesion because that is what is the root cause of many of these issues including trying to understand including the radicalization of European citizens. Social cohesion goes beyond that and looks also at issues like: growing xenophobia, anti-immigrant groups, poverty and discrimination against minorities and immigrants and the challenges faced by EU citizens moving within the EU to find employment (i.e Poles and Slovaks moving to Britain).
The leaders of EU countries have been reluctant to address these issues collectively but now that they have seen the terrible costs (again) of inaction I have hope that they will allow the EU to start looking at collectively strategies both from an information/policing framework on this specific issue of radicalized individuals and small groups but also the larger issue that is helping to provide the space and disenchantment that allows this radicalization to occur.

Christian Kaunert, Professor of International Politics, Director of the European Institute for Security and Justice, University of Dundee

I think the attacks on Paris will have a profound effect on the European Union. Firstly, it has created a real sense of common grief and mourning. Many EU countries have followed the events on TV almost as if it had happened there, whether Belgium, Germany, Italy, etc. EU citizens were profoundly shocked by the events and many have felt a shared mourning. So, politicians will have to fake account of that and implement this in concrete policies.

Secondly, the structural reasons for the attack in Paris are similar in many EU countries. There are many foreign fighters that have returned from Syria or Iraq in many EU countries other than France, whether Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, the UK, or many other European countries. This makes a common European response a clear necessity.

In the short term this might provide political impetus for already existing counter-terrorism initiatives. However, in the medium term, this might also be the starting point for new European initiatives. It is likely to provide impetus for the EU PNR legislation, but might create many new initiatives on how to deal jointly with returning foreign fighters. This will be a debate likely to continue for several years to come.

Katharina Crepaz, PhD Student in Political Science, Leopold-Franzens Universität Innsbruck

The march held in Paris was indeed an important sign of standing up for democracy and against extremism, and of demonstrating unity in the face of terrorism. Freedom of speech is one of the core values of a democratic society, and it cannot be silenced through violence – a strong symbolic act. However, as you correctly mention, political measures will need to follow to truly make a difference.

We are experiencing two phenomena in Europe: First, a threat by extremists born and raised in the EU, who are EU citizens, and return to target their home countries after having been trained in Syria or Iraq. Second, a growing right-wing movement generalizing all muslims and immigration in general as a danger to liberal western democracy (as seen in the PEGIDA demonstrations in Germany). Both issues will need to be addressed by the EU, as they are common developments in many European countries, and should therefore be acted upon transnationally. Collaboration and a common strategy on counter-terrorism, as well as on the societal marginalization of minorities and integration policy will be needed. The EU has been relatively hesitant on these issues so far, and a stronger, and most of all common, policy development approach should be adopted.

Roderick Parkes, Scholar, Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI), Non-resident Fellow, Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM)

Europe’s leaders have reacted in a conciliatory way, saying that this is not a Muslim problem and calling for inter-ethnic understanding. That seems sensible, but it’s also incompatible with their idea that this is an attack on the freedom of speech and that we must stand by this fundamental value. As far as I’m aware, Islamist radicals are quite content with the way freedom of speech is given such a prominent place in our democracy and the way it is exercised. What they fear and dislike is the spread of left-liberal values both within European society and internationally. So long as freedom of speech is exercised in the way that Charlie Hebdo was exercising it – to provoke and bully marginalised sections of the population, rather than purely to satirise France’s political and economic class – then it serves to drive a wedge through society. With their ‘attack on free speech’, they are in fact trying to bolster it and crystallise it in its current form.

If you want a good visual representation of the way West European democracy and freedom of speech work, then it’s probably a blog post in the Guardian or some other mainstream newspaper: above the line, there’s an opinion from a politician or a talking head like myself; below the line angry comments from increasingly frustrated voters, dismayed at the aloofness. That is indeed freedom of speech, but of course it’s great inequality of speech. And although both right and left wing politicians are aloof and ‘above the line’, it is right-wingers who appear more in touch with public anger. When the solidary silence of the marches in Paris ends, and the debate begins, Europeans will thus be driven rightwards. There’ll be talk about trying to leverage the West’s weight in the world in order to spread its values, and of assimilating minorities. And, because of the spirit in which this is carried out, I suspect it will be largely self-defeating.

The Left-liberal side has found no means of dealing with this, apart from to try to close down freedom of speech (with political correctness) or suggest that there are responsibilities attached to its exercise. This – correctly in my opinion – only increases the public perception of them as distant and removed from realities. So what they need to do instead is look at the way our democracy works, and make sure those angry voices – Christian, Muslim, whoever – actually count. The failure to do so goes back to the end of the Cold War. In the 1990s, Western Europe reacted to the economic competition from abroad, and the new ease of communication, by investing in a knowledge economy: by making sure we were the most innovative and capable of doing high-skilled jobs, we would keep high-wage employment in Europe. This was also supposed to revitalise our politics: the new forms of communication (tv, internet) and the investment in education would open up the political class.

The reverse has happened. Western Europe certainly succeeded in shifting to a services economy, achieving some gains in high-wage sectors such as financial services. But the really knowledge-intensive taks of updating our manufacturing industries, rural economy and peripheries was not undertaken. And as for our political system, the emergence of new forms of mass communication like the internet actually narrowed down the kind of people involved in politics. Now our MPs are well-educated people with a PR background who are good at communication. All this is leading to political gridlock, social and economic fragmentation, and a sense of helplessness. If the Left-liberal side want to make the knowledge economy work – and the idea was a good one – then they need to go back and do the hard work of acutally revitalising neglected sections of the economy and opening up politics.

Above all, I suggest, that means turning European democracy into a kind of collaborative problem-solving process whereby we use new forms of communication not to express opinions that are immediately ignored but to harvest people’s practical experience. If we can get away from the old industrial age idea of representative democracy, and towards something flatter and more collaborative, then I think we will go some way to avoiding situations like the current one.

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