Peacebuilding begins at home: Addressing rising tensions and insecurity in Europe

This article was originally published in the independent online magazine www.opendemocracy.net.

This blog was written before the tragic events in France last week, sparked by a shooting at the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine, and suggests three pressing reasons for the European Union to re-establish itself as a peacebuilding instrument in the minds of the general public.

Despite the crisis in Ukraine, Europe is not usually the first region that comes to mind when we think of conflict and peacebuilding. Nonetheless, the global economic crisis of 2008 and conflicts around the world – namely Syria – have put considerable strain on the social relations underpinning peace and stability in a variety of European countries, leading to rising tensions and insecurity.

This raises the question: does the European Union need to re-establish its role as a peacebuilding instrument in the minds of the general public, which increasingly views it at best as a vehicle for economic cooperation and at worst as a bureaucratic, self-serving monstrosity run by France and Germany?

In a new paper, A continent of peace?, International Alert identifies three key areas that are leading to rising tensions and insecurity in Europe.

First is the growing inequality between the rich and the poor, which, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, government responses to the financial crisis have only served to increase. The drop in income for the poorest 10% of the working population, for instance, has been double that of the richest 10%. And in the past weeks we have heard political leaders warn of Europe falling back into recession, even if austerity measures remain in place.

Second, this rising inequality has given rise to greater cultural inequality and divisive narratives that scapegoat certain sections of society and communities, targeting immigrants, Muslims and welfare recipients, who have all been portrayed by the media and politicians in simplistic and often derogatory language. These dynamics were clearly visible in this year’s European parliamentary elections, which saw growing support for far-right and anti-immigration platforms, which rarely went beyond rhetoric. For some countries, such as the UK, this is likely to continue in 2015.

The third and connected area is the crisis of faith in political institutions. In a number of countries, citizens are expressing disillusionment and apathy towards power and governance structures, as illustrated by declining voter participation at the EU and national levels. In Spain, Greece, Italy, the UK and Germany, smaller parties on the left and right are becoming more appealing to the young at the expense of centre parties. In some ways this might be a positive, as it shows signs of engagement, but it may also result in further alienation, as the mainstream parties could close ranks through coalitions to keep out the smaller parties.

The interaction between these three themes at a time of increased global vulnerability caused by conflict ‘abroad’ is creating greater fragility across Europe, deepening divides and exclusion, and therefore potentially increasing the risk of violence.

So what can we do? We can start by creating alternative spaces for those (mainly young people) whose feelings of alienation, marginalisation and lack of opportunity can lead them into committing acts of violence. Spaces that allow young people (for example from Muslim communities and those with far right learnings) to explore and ask questions, propose viewpoints without fear of being labelled ‘extremist’ or ‘radical’ and spaces for those who see things in black and white to be offered peaceful and effective mechanisms for airing their views and taking action. (On a separate note, we need to reclaim the word ‘radicalism’ – the world would not have changed for the better without it.)

Spaces such as mosques may not be able to provide young British Muslims with the opportunity to talk openly and explore the issues they care about, whether because of generational divides, the failure of Imams to properly engage with them, or self-censorship out of fear of being accused of ‘preaching radicalism’.

We can also support diaspora groups from countries or regions at conflict to help foster peace – in Europe and in their countries of origin or heritage. For example, helping Syrian diaspora groups to work collaboratively ‘across divides’ to support peace in Syria and inform and educate their ‘host’ communities in Europe about the conflict, helping to maintain cohesion abroad and where they live.

However, violence is not just the preserve of one group or community. On a visit to Greece earlier this year, we asked local organisations – “Who is working with those at risk of perpetrating violence as part of the far-right movement in the country?” With a look of puzzlement, they said: “Why would you want to work with them?” Yet our experience of peacebuilding across the world clearly tells us that if you don’t, then those who want to continue the violence will.

We know that none of this is simple or even new. But if we’re to stand any chance of reducing tensions and violence here in Europe, we need to start focusing on those issues that are most corrosive to our stability and on promoting those policies that we know work.