The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) welcomed the promoters of the STOP EXTREMISM European Citizens' Initiative (ECI) at its 21 March plenary held in Brussels, providing them with a platform at EU level to present the goal of their initiative and their concerns about extremism.
Luca Jahier, EESC president, welcomed Sebastian Reimer and Michael Laubsch, two of the initiators and promoters, congratulating them on their successful ECI: it had gathered around 1.6 million signatures within one year, though it still needs to be validated by the Member States.
Stop Extremism, which will probably be the fifth successful ECI, was the tenth ECI to be presented at an EESC plenary and the first one to be presented before the ECI had been officially forwarded to the European Commission, an indication of the level of trust that the Committee enjoyed with Europe's civil society.
In his introductory remarks, Mr Jahier underlined that the inclusion of the ECI in the Lisbon Treaty had been the most important step yet for active democratic participation.
He took the opportunity to reaffirm the EESC's continuous engagement – something that emerged in a very practical way at the annual ECI day – to improving the ECI instrument in order to make it more user-friendly and ensure that it had a genuine impact. These efforts were finally bearing fruit.
The first vice-president of the Commission, Frans Timmermans, will not only open the 2019 ECI Day on 2 April, but he will also present the revised ECI tool, making it easier to collect signatures for citizen's initiatives and thus for people to make their voice heard. This makes us happy and proud, said Mr Jahier as he invited the initiators to present their ECI.
Mr Laubsch stressed that by proposing the Stop Extremism ECI, the initiators wanted to rouse people from their "EU fatigue" and bring together EU politics, the EU institutions and the people of Europe to discuss how to fight extremism.
Hate is starting to disrupt our society. Our fundamental rights need renewed support, especially from the public, Mr Laubsch said.
The EU needs to tackle the big questions, such as extremism and terrorism, because they can only be solved at European and multinational level.
We need a clear definition of extremism if we are to give the phenomenon real meaning, added Mr Reimer. Fundamental rights should be the guideline and extremists are those who destroy fundamental rights. In order to fight extremism, the ECI is calling for both positive and negative incentives: negative motivation would for instance be the proposed watch-list to publicly name and shame extremists, while positive motivation would be showcasing the work of people who are dedicated to improving the implementation of fundamental rights.
The initiators' presentation was followed by statements by EESC members who underlined the importance not only of fighting extremism, but also of preserving Europe's values and social system, and making them sustainable.
It is not enough to counter extremism, we need to prevent it. This starts in schools by empowering young people to be resilient when confronted with extremist discourse, especially on online social platforms. We must also address the socio-economic problems which lead to exclusion and alienation. In particular, we must empower our youth and create an enabling environment for their democratic participation. But the response to the threat of extremism and terrorism should not itself intrude upon the very values we defend – those of freedom, democracy, justice and the rule of law. Our EESC Group on Fundamental Rights and the Rule of Law has a key contribution to make in this regard, said Oliver Röpke, president of the Workers' group.
A similar line was adopted by Gonçalo Lobo Xavier, member of the Employers' group:
I want to broadcast the positive message of the ECI: that we need to protect the European model. We live in an area that has the best social system in the world and our task is to preserve it, including for future generations. Furthermore, freedom is an inalienable right, one which we dearly embrace. It is not only about imposing laws, but we must respect everybody's choices and everybody's freedom within the framework of our fundamental rights and values.
Finally Cillian Lohan, member of the Diversity Europe group said:
It is important to look at the causes of extremism and the rise of populism in the EU. After the collapse of the financial system, was the solution really to rebuild the same system again using austerity policies? The message we get from those in power is that we have recovered fully. However, the reality people are feeling is quite different. It creates a complete disconnect between those in power, governments and the citizens on the ground.
Background: Official registration of the ECI
We call on the European Commission to draft a bill to prevent and reduce the negative consequences of extremism, particularly on the Single Market.
The proposed provisions under European Union Law should oblige the Member States to:
- use positive motivation to identify and eliminate extremism within the Single Market;
- use transparency to ensure that financial support of extremism is clearly visible to all citizens and companies; and
- use employment law and compensatory damages to effectively combat extremism within the Single Market.