Spotlight: City-Based Approaches at the #EU Prevent Conference

April 2021 – Efus took part in a European conference on preventing polarisation and violent radicalisation organised jointly by six projects funded by the European Commission’s Internal Security Fund programme, on 26-29 April. The event took place online. 

Efus took part in two workshops on “city-based approaches”. The first one was focused on “Strengthening coordinated response & prevention” by city networks. The second, which was  hosted by the Efus-led BRIDGE project (Building Resilience to Reduce Polarisation and Growing Extremism), focused on the role of local and regional authorities in the assessment, prevention and mitigation of polarisation. 

Using a ‘whole-of-society’ approach against radicalisation

The first workshop emphasised the importance of employing a multi-agency, multi-stakeholder and whole-of-society approach in order to prevent radicalisation leading to violent extremism.  An array of awareness-raising activities were presented, as well as educational programmes for youth empowerment and engagement. Efus was represented by Manuel Comeron, responsible for the prevention of violent extremism at the municipality of Liège, Efus presiding city. 

In the second workshop on city-based approaches, local authorities and a psychologist offered guidelines and recommendations on how to use two concrete tools that help to better understand and monitor manifestations and dynamics of polarisation at the local level. Representatives of local and regional authorities presented strategies to prevent and mitigate polarisation through fostering social cohesion and citizen participation.

What is polarisation?

Polarisation can be understood as a process of sharpening differences between groups in society. This can result in increased tensions, high levels of ‘us and them’ thinking, hostility towards the ‘other group’ and an absence of inter-community dialogue and cooperation. European cities suffer directly from the harmful consequences of polarisation, which can lead to radicalisation and extremist violence. 

The role of local authorities

Cities have an important role to play in preventing and mitigating polarisation because they are well-placed to understand local dynamics and engage directly with local stakeholders. They work closely with the population and thus have the necessary skills, connections and local knowledge base to develop efficient prevention strategies, foster social cohesion and enhance community resilience. 

Auditing polarisation

Prior to implementing any mitigation and prevention activities, it is essential to establish a clear picture of the form and dynamics of polarisation within a given community. Such an approach enables local authorities and stakeholders to tailor and carefully target their actions, and to identify the necessary actors to involve in the development, elaboration and implementation of this work.

Zero-sum thinking

Patricia Andrews Faeron, PhD researcher at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychology, presented the ‘Zero-sum mindset questionnaire’, which aims to generate empirical data about the manifestation of polarisation in local communities. ‘Zero-sum thinking’ is a mindframe that considers that there can only be winners and losers and that the gain of one party is necessarily the loss of the other. A ‘Zero-sum mindset’ is characterised by relations that are seen as fixed and antagonistic by the “opponent” groups or communities. This attitude precludes any form of dialogue, erodes inter-community trust and fuels tensions, making it both a source and a symptom of polarisation.

Aike Janssen, Policy Advisor at the City of Rotterdam, presented the ‘Quick Scan’, which the municipality uses four times a year as well as in reaction to certain incidents at the local, national and international level to map out the local security landscape. The ‘Quick Scan’ uses an array of sources – including stakeholder interviews, online research and social media analysis – to inform local authorities about the city’s ‘tension-temperature’, guiding policy and highlighting areas in need of intervention. Directly engaging with key community figures is essential, since these people are the best-placed to offer direct insight into polarisation dynamics within the community. They are seen as legitimate actors by their groups, which makes them respected ‘role models’ or ‘bridge builders’.

Building bridges by promoting dialogue

Cultural and educational activities are powerful and effective means of building inter-community connections and engaging citizens on important issues. By fostering a shared environment of discovery and entertainment, cultural and educational activities can break down barriers and stereotypes and thus ease local-level polarisation. 

In Val d’Oise – as presented by Quentin Degrave, Security Programme Manager of the Val d’Oise Departmental Council –  an array of cultural and educational activities are implemented in an attempt to improve police-community relations, an issue which has come to the fore due to regular conflicts between youngsters from underprivileged neighbourhoods and police officers. Educational and artistic activities include a film-making project and a forum theatre programme. Through these actions, the Departmental Council hopes to create a safe space for dialogue between youths and police officers.

Similarly, the City of Leuven’s restorative justice approach aims to prevent situations which might serve as a breeding ground for polarisation. The restorative approach is a way to deal with conflict and harm by bringing all the involved parties together in a safe environment where they can recognise the damage caused and work together to repair it. It is particularly helpful in dealing with situations of polarisation. The city of Leuven aims to apply this approach to its organisational structure. 

Peer exchange

Engaging with citizens on an equal footing is essential to fostering trust and open dialogue. This is the idea behind the City of Stuttgart’s ‘Respect Guides’ project, which entrusts young people, aged between 18 and 30, with the task of engaging with their peers and other citizens in public spaces.  The Respect Guides represent the diversity of Stuttgart’s citizens, uniting young people from various different backgrounds and with diverse life experiences. There are presently some 20 Respect Guides in the team, speaking 10 different languages. The volunteers promote respectful interaction between all citizens and act as intermediaries between the municipality and the public.

An issue that remains uncharted

Even though polarisation is present, and one might say even increasing in European societies and thus local communities,  the BRIDGE project has shown us that this issue remains uncharted territory for many European municipalities. Further projects examining the causes, manifestations and platforms of polarisation, as well as innovative mitigation practices, are thus essential in enhancing and advancing our approach to this phenomenon.

To date, most projects  in the field of the prevention of radicalisation focus on primary prevention activities for children, teenagers and  young adults. Recent events, however, such as the storming of the US Capitol and numerous anti-Covid demonstrations across Europe, show that the adult population is equally affected. Further work, therefore, must seek to address this population as well and develop adequate prevention strategies.

In conclusion, participants in the workshop agreed that polarisation is a complex, sensitive and multifaceted phenomenon and that any effective approach must be interdisciplinary and involve all sectors of society. 

> More information on the BRIDGE project
> The BRIDGE project will hold its final conference on 31 May (online). More information and registration (free of charge) here