Dear President Lambertz,
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a great pleasure for me to be here with you today, and to welcome you all to our Conference on the role of EU Cities against Radicalisation.
The presence of 13 Mayors, 34 city representatives, 11 representatives of our Member States, and several regional, national and European organisations shows the importance of the issue we are here to discuss: the prevention of radicalisation in our cities.
It underlines once more that our efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism and terrorism start from empowering you at the heart of our policy.
I was mayor of the city of Athens for eight years, during a time of social and economic transformation.
I know the challenges you face, but I know also the pivotal role you can play in bringing positive change at the local level, and the momentum you can create from the local to the European and the global level.
At the time when I was mayor, it was my belief in this very momentum that inspired me to launch the Diplomacy of Cities initiative: an initiative to build peace, cooperation, and inter-cultural understanding from the bottom up.
I still remember the words of the late UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, who welcomed this initiative, saying that understanding between peoples begins at home.
At the most local level. That while the challenges are global, it is often at the most local level that they are actually felt.
And that, my dear friends, is the reason that we have taken the initiative to convene this gathering here today.
Radicalisation is not a problem that can be confined to one, or several cities.
It is an issue of global dimensions, and a social challenge that manifests itself in a variety of ways.
From islamist terrorism, all the way to the extremist far-right and far-left of the political spectrum.
When more than half of the world’s population currently lives in urban areas, it is evident why our cities are the very frontline in addressing this challenge.
Several participants of this conference – Brussels, Berlin, Copenhagen, Liège, Barcelona –have experienced the horror of terrorism in their own back yard.
Many are the examples of solidarity and support that citizens selflessly lend to each other in situations of crisis, and in the desire to not let the terrorists prevail in their strategy and defy the spread of fear and terror.
And this solidarity and sense of community should be extended and systematised also among EU cities.
The diplomacy of cities is an idea that for me holds as much promise today as it did 20 years ago when I was a Mayor like you.
There is a great paradox in today’s complex global security environment. We are now at a point where it is the first time since the end of the Cold War that we may be truly witnessing a great movement of the pieces of the international order.
It is the first time since the end of the Second World War that there is so much uncertainty whether the main pillars of the post-war international order can be kept in place.
It is also the first time in almost 30 years where we can see all the hallmarks of great power competition reappearing – only with the question whether the main players changing.
Yet, the paradox, is that beyond this macro geopolitical level, our greatest source of insecurity on a daily basis, comes from the most micro- and local level possible: the individual.
It is the radicalised individual, the so-called “lone wolf”, who is the greatest challenge for our security.
The marginalised individual-turned-extremist overnight, because of peer influence or because of extremist propaganda on the internet.
The disaffected youth in our cities, that feel disadvantaged, and are seduced by siren calls from poisonous ideologues. The petty criminal whose life is spent in and out of prison, and who finds a sense of purpose in extremism.
Extremists use, and will continue to use, all means at their disposal to radicalise and recruit and instil fear in the public, both offline or online, through the dissemination of terrorist propaganda on social media.
And while populists and demagogues everywhere will offer easy answers to the question why this is happening, the examples I just gave you show that the root causes, or the conditions conducive to radicalisation, are varied and touch upon all areas of society.
From our schools, to our labour markets, to our prison systems and to our inclusion policies. To deal with it we need a collective European response which focuses on prevention.
This has been the guiding principle of our work against radicalisation over the last four years, and it is reflected in a great number of initiatives we have taken.
We proposed legislation to remove terrorist content from the internet within 1 hour of an order issued to internet platforms.
We reinforced the Radicalisation Awareness Network – from the very early days of my mandate as Commissioner, in 2015 – to turn it into a genuine Centre of Excellence against radicalisation.
We set up a new Cooperation and Support Mechanism to make sure that EU policy instruments are geared towards national and local needs.
A Steering Board and a network of national policy makers will ensure this objective involving all relevant stakeholders, and including in particular our cities.
We have made significant amounts of money available through the Internal Security Fund to support concretely these efforts, funding many projects focusing on multi-agency approaches, on empowering local actions, on building resilience and on fighting against the increasing risk of polarisation.
Right now, there is an open call for proposals, with a 5 million euro envelope, which is particularly relevant for cities because it focuses on improving the community engagement, the multi-agency collaboration and the empowerment of local actors.
This call will be open until 19 March and I encourage you to ask for more information in the dedicated market place information point during lunch time.
We also earmarked 100 million euro for urban security – including radicalisation – for which project proposals are now being evaluated.
Substantial funds are also given for research on countering radicalisation through Horizon 2020, to look into the risks and protection factors of violent radicalisation among young people in Europe and related local approaches.
Your role, and the cooperation of all stakeholders at local level, is crucial. It is you, all the actors at local level that are best placed to identify the potential hubs for radicalisation, knowing which are the difficult neighbourhoods.
I am happy to say that the seeds of this work are already germinating.
The fact that you are here and that many of you have already committed to local and national action plans, initiatives and partnerships with other cities and stakeholders is very encouraging to me.
I will mention an example from the very heart of Brussels: the commune of Molenbeek, which has developed a project of participative theatre, funded by the EU.
The theatre play is performed by mothers of departed foreign terrorist fighters and illustrates all of their struggles.
The city of Utrecht has another interesting project, a web application for schools, to be used by teachers and students.
The city of Liège has developed a project with its University for better psychological support in relation to the prevention of radicalisation.
The social and police services of Helsinki are collaborating with a foundation which helps field workers to engage with youngsters who are particularly at risk of radicalisation.
The City of Brussels initiated a project against polarisation in schools, Düsseldorf produced videos on alternative narratives, and in Malmö, a network of mothers in different neighbourhoods of the city helps and supports other mothers of radicalised youth.
And it is these individuals, these small community heroes – to go back to our great security paradox of the year 2019 – that can make all the difference on the ground.
We need to capitalise and build on, extrapolate and expand these local acts of heroism.
Together, we are more than the sum of our component parts.
In the face of a challenge that transcends the borders of your municipalities, your countries, even our continent, it is through working, learning, and acting together that we will find ways forward.
Long-term collaboration is the key to the creation of trust. In these years, a lot has been done by different actors at all levels.
Now it is time to go one step further, building on the role of our cities with all relevant stakeholders on board, committed to defeat the challenge of radicalisation in our communities.
I go back to the words of Kofi Annan 20 years ago. At the launch of the Diplomacy of Cities initiative, he said that “it is from the life of the city, since ancient Greek times, that we derive the notion of citizenship – and indeed civilisation”.
And while I think we will agree that there is nothing civil about radicalisation, it is precisely through the civility of our cities that we can defeat it.
It is through our cities and the civic values they can instil – at the most micro level possible – that we can rebuild the broken parts of our societies, which take up arms against fellow citizens.
Building on the trust and the relationships we can establish in fora such as this one.
That is why I can welcome the idea to explore a Covenant of Mayors, which can solidify and concretise these relationships further, as a complement to our existing initiatives. A gradual approach will allow us to build on a solid foundation and to ensure that we have both a critical mass of cities participating, as well as a commitment to concrete actions going forward.
I wish you all a fruitful and successful day in this conference.
I urge you to use your time here, to build the bridges to your peers, which will help you to be more successful in our common fight against radicalisation.