The fight against violent extremism has become one of the key objectives of the European Union’s external action. But what is the EU actually doing to prevent and counter violent extremism (P/CVE) in the area of its enlarged neighbourhood? This question was at the heart of the dialogue on the “EU and other stakeholders’ prevention strategy towards violent extremism in the Maghreb and the Sahel”, which focused on two key regions for European P/CVE action. Featuring the participation of high-ranking EU officials and experts, the event took place on the 3rd of March 2021, as part of the Horizon 2020 research project PREVEXPreventing Violent Extremism in the Balkans and the Mena: Strengthening Resilience in Enabling Environments”. The online meeting was hosted by the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies (SSSA) and organised jointly with the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), Al-Akhwyan University of Ifrane (AUI), the Alliance for Rebuilding Governance in Africa (ARGA), the University of Leipzig and the University of Copenhagen. The dialogue was held under Catham House Rules, and to this end, the discussant’s names and organizations have not been mentioned.

The dialogue, which was held under the Catham House rule, was kickstarted by Sant’Anna’s researchers who reviewed the findings of the latest PREVEX research on the EU and other stakeholders’ strategies to prevent and counter violent extremism in the Maghreb and the Sahel. Overall, the research found that security-centred discourses and approaches have tended to prevail in the EU’s P/CVE strategies vis-à-vis these regions. A conflation of counter-terrorism and P/CVE was frequently observed, to the advantage of short-term repressive measures. Nevertheless, the EU is avoiding to embark on the “global war on terror” policy model, based mainly on the military defeat of the enemy. Rather, the model that emerges from EU actions, policies and discourses is a “criminal justice” one, mainly based on law enforcement cooperation and judicial system effectiveness. From this perspective, a lack of rigid top-down blueprints dictated from Brussels and the reluctance of the EU to take the lead in the P/CVE agenda may have had a favourable impact in terms of constructive engagement with local authorities, context sensitivity, and local ownership. But it has also often enabled other stakeholders in the Maghreb and the Sahel, including both national authorities and international partners, to shape the P/CVE agenda in these regions in accordance with their own interests and views. At the same time, the EU appears to rely on the unverified assumption that P/CVE initiatives can coexist, and arguably concur, with a number of other priorities that EU foreign action pursues, such as fighting climate change, uphold human rights, mainstream gender, foster development to name but a few. In fact, however, these competing priorities could lead EU P/CVE to be subordinated to, or diluted within, other strategic objectives. And this is also because there is a dearth of concrete mid-level policy instruments to ensure the effective implementation, monitoring and evaluation of EU P/CVE projects and policies.

In response to the findings of the brief, an international official, intervened to challenge the idea that strategies, narratives and policies of securitization are the predominant frame of EU P/CVE actions, including in the Maghreb and the Sahel. Questioning the sampling methodology of the brief, the official argued that PREVEX researchers have failed to acknowledge and account for many other projects that are P/CVE relevant, but that are not defined as such. Had they been given due consideration, they could have “rebalanced” the brief’s final tally in favour of good governance and development approaches that, in the official’s opinion, remain the predominant focus of European P/CVE action. Furthermore, the official argued that there is not a lack of implementation instruments: they have been developed by INTPA, namely to be utilized by development professionals.

The debate stimulated comments by a discussant from a civil society organisation. The discussant argued that without a convincing definition and theory of what constitutes radicalization, the identification of the correct policy framework to foster prevention remains embedded in ideological assumptions. Without a nuanced and context-sensitive definition of radicalization, of what is moderate and what is extreme, acceptable and unacceptable, EU policies run the risk of imposing foreign normative frameworks, which may be manipulated and abused by local partners to pursue their own agendas and criminalise political opponents. For instance, as s.he went on to comment, in some Maghreb states, local and international concerns about the foreign fighter problem have been used to legitimise heavy-handed security initiatives by local authorities that aim to supress dialogue. These issues are a reality that EU policymakers will have to struggle with until more efficient and sensitive strategies are birthed. In contrast, the discussant argued, EU P/CVE efforts should lay emphasis on capacity building programs and good governance approaches, shifting EU priorities from security and stabilisation to conflict transformation and regional institution building. Good governance, in fact, would imply transforming Sahel’s and Maghreb’s countries’ institutions at a structural level, with the assumption that the promotion and exportation of liberal values and norms may act as a bulwark against the root causes of violent extremism. However, such a proactive role may stir the preoccupation of the EU being seen as imposing its own normative frameworks on local actors and partner countries in combatting radicalization. At the same time, the emphasis on tackling the root causes of violent extremism by promoting development may be politically convenient, but it is premised on shaky assumptions and is not backed by convincing evidence.

Another international official, previously involved in the Maghreb, intervened and elaborated on one of the programs reviewed in the Policy brief, specifically the Algerian prison reform program that was supported by the EU.  S.he stated that whilst the program was indeed P/CVE relevant, it was not labelled as such due to the Algerian ministry of justice’s preferences. In fact, this is not an isolated case and there may be a number of programs that are P/CVE relevant although not P/CVE specific. This insightful observation stresses the ambiguity of what constitutes P/CVE policies and categories, and highlights the conceptual overstretch of the notion. If anything, from education to agriculture, from prison reform to border controls, can be considered P/CVE, and even without being labelled as such, then the analytical content and distinctiveness of P/CVE are much diluted. That would make P/CVE a buzzword, perhaps politically convenient, but unlikely to inform specific policies and to achieve concrete objectives. The difference in defining said program highlights the ambiguity and an excessive scope as to what constitute P/CVE initiatives.

Subsequently, a participant from another civil society organisation took the floor. S.he highlighted the overwhelming emphasis on security-heavy approaches pursued by the EU in the Sahel specifically, with the risk of altering local perceptions of EU’s policy coherence and overall image in this context. The recent influx of Swedish and Italian troops in the framework of the French-led counter-terrorism joint Task Force “Takuba” only marks the latest in a myriad of European security-oriented missions, which includes Barkhane, EUTM, EUCAP Sahel, the G5 Sahel Joint Force, the Sahel Coalition and the Sahel Partnership. There is no sign of these foreign initiatives slowing down, although local populations may be deeply fragmented and doubtful regarding these efforts, and since the security situation continues to deteriorate in the region, their usefulness remains to be confirmed. In this regard, such a saturation of security-centred approaches should be replaced by the promotion of good governance, and these considerations should inform the discussions on the new Sahel Strategy currently being developed by the EU.

Following this consideration, an international officer, reiterated the importance of intervention mechanisms being more accountable, being based on solid evidence that can be actively monitored and relayed to regional stakeholders, as this represented a key aspect in prevention.

Whilst conditions in the regions of the Maghreb and the Sahel are ever more complex, and views about the most effective approaches to preventing and countering violent extremism may diverge, all participants agreed that these kind of dialogues are useful. Firstly, they help fostering accountability and constructive criticism of the policy strategies employed; and secondly in promoting scholarly discussions on the methodologies, concepts and theories that are most suitable to apprehending the challenges of P/CVE.

Cover photo by Dario Caputo on Unsplash