Split on Islam and Migration, EU Vows Crackdown on Extremism

Split on Islam and Migration, EU Vows to Crackdown on Extremism

European Union governments promised a coordinated crackdown on violent extremism, as the bloc walks a tightrope between tackling the threat of terror attacks and stigmatizing Muslims and immigrants.

“We should promote that religious education and training -- preferably within the EU -- is in line with European fundamental rights and values,” EU home affairs ministers declared on Friday in a joint communique. A French-led push in earlier draft versions of the ministerial statement to explicitly task the European Commission with “steering work” toward reforming the training of Imams was removed from the final text.

Still, on the eve of Friday’s virtual meeting, European Council President Charles Michel said “the training given to Imams practicing in Europe does not sufficiently take into account our fundamental values.” He also called for setting up one or more educational and training institutions to promote “an Islam which unequivocally embraces” EU standards. Michel, an ally of French President Emmanuel Macron, chairs the meetings of EU leaders

The communique also watered down the language on migration, compared to an initial proposal that called for sanctions against immigrants not showing willingness to integrate. The debate over the exact wording of the statement highlights ensuing divisions among governments on how to respond to the latest wave of attacks by Islamist extremists in Austria and France, which have catapulted terrorism back to the top of the bloc’s agenda.

Encrypted Communications

Some diplomats fear that stigmatizing specific groups and cracking down on liberties may allow individual governments to dodge blame for possible failures in their security, migration or integration policies, with measures and rhetoric that appear to vindicate the very arguments used by extremists to disseminate their message. It’s the latest in a series of debates over European values, which also include discriminating laws adopted by Hungary and Poland in the name of Christianity.

The clash over culture and religion risks spilling over into other policy areas. Hungary and Poland have threatened to veto a jointly financed economic recovery package in retaliation to what they see as unfair criticism of their democratic standards, while Friday’s statement of home affairs ministers signals that countries could limit borderless travel in the EU if their peers aren’t seen as effective enough in arresting Islamist extremists.

Ministers also said they will consider “the matter of data encryption so that digital evidence can be lawfully collected and used by the competent authorities.” Even as a disclaimer reassures that any measures will be taken “while maintaining the trustworthiness” of products such as popular mobile chat applications, seeking back-door access to encrypted messaging could trigger a backlash from technology companies and privacy advocates.

Technology companies will risk facing financial and other penalties if they are seen failing to crack down on terrorist propaganda on their platforms, according to the statement. Ministers promised “to create a new and rapid and effective instrument to counter terrorist content online within an hour or less of its being reported.”

Friday’s virtual meeting took place on the fifth anniversary of terrorist attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead and hundreds more injured. Ministers and EU leaders will return to the topic at their scheduled meetings next month.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.