This summer, three years passed since the horrific terrorist attacks by a far-right extremist who took the lives of 77 people in Norway and injured hundreds on 22 July 2011. Though news agencies often jump to commemorate anniversaries of major acts of violence in Europe, this one was hard to find in the news this year. The focus of Western European attention over the past several months has - rightly so - been on Islamist extremism, worries about individuals traveling to fight in Syria and Iraq, and other threats to national security.
Far-right extremism is often relegated to a second tier security threat due to the tendency to see these groups as irrelevant to inquiries into national security and terrorism. Though in most European countries, it is fair to say that the far right poses less of a 'terrorist threat' than other forms of extremism, this is a simplistic way of conceptualising the role and impact of far-right violence on Europe. There are several reasons to be wary of this.
First, while it is high-profile and high impact events that hit the headlines, the bulk of the threat posed by the far right is felt through smaller-scale localised harassment, intimidation and bullying by extremists targeting minority communities. These kinds of incidences often go undetected, and they are hard to quantify - but they leave communities living in fear.
Second, the problem with far-right violence is that it is inextricably intertwined with public and political debates on immigration and integration, national identity, and national security. Far-right extremists may even be riding on narratives that are actually accepted by large sections of the mainstream population, or ideologies advocated by mainstream politicians. These groups and individuals are often reactionary, playing off current affairs and traumatic events to mobilise other supporters around hateful messages. Mainstreamed narratives are thus being used to justify terrorism and violence.
Third, estimated figures of participation in movements are not often solid indicators of the threat. Even in countries where intelligence reports minimal numbers, far-right extremism may simply be a 'hidden' phenomenon, less visible due to a strong penal code and social stigma against these groups, and increasingly active online. There is also a high level of chatter in the online space, and little is known about the relationship between talk and action. Worryingly, Europol confirms that many members of the extreme right-wing scene have been found in possession of a significant amount of firearms, ammunition or explosives, and there are numerous examples, from the Netherlands to Slovakia, of far-right groups providing training in combat techniques and target practice.
In some ways, despite that their 'hidden' nature and elusivity make them difficult to predict, their dependence on and manipulation of current affairs and grievances should actually make their movements easy to predict. We tend not to be front-footed in dealing with far-right violence. We focus far too much on expressing concern about 'the problem' rather than teaching ourselves about - or indeed carrying out - 'the solutions.' We know enough about the problem to act.
Today, we launch The FREE Initiative (Far-Right Extremism in Europe Initiative). There are thousands of front-line professionals across Europe who come face-to-face with this issue on a regular basis, whether it is those working specifically on countering violent extremism, or those who encounter the far right as part of their daily responsibilities policing communities or educating young people. They often develop innovative solutions to these challenges, though these rarely make headlines or send ripples beyond the community immediately affected. This initiative aims to change this.
The FREE Initiative is not your bog standard 'zero tolerance' anti-racism initiative. Our message is new.
It is all too often that those fighting the good fight simply look down on those who espouse far-right ideologies, dismissing them as 'racists' or 'Nazis.' This punitive approach is often preferred when dealing with far-right extremists in our communities. However, ignoring them or dismissing them will not make them go away. In fact, time and time again we see that this approach can help push individuals further down the path of radicalisation, or push them underground to operate undetected.
We aim to start a conversation on how Europe can engage directly with the problem of far-right extremism. It is a conversation about solutions. At the heart of efforts to tackle the far right must be initiatives to have the difficult conversations with those in or on the peripheries of movements, engaging with them as people and working to help them change their behaviour and their attitudes. The FREE Initiative showcases the stories of those who are on the streets having the hard conversations with far-right activists, those who have rid entire towns of neo-Nazi gangs, and those who have pushed hundreds of violent extremists to leave the scene. It includes survivors of far-right violence, who share their stories to prevent attacks like this from happening again, and former extremists who share their stories to prevent others from taking the paths they once did.
Confronting Europe's problem with far-right extremism is no easy task. Those who are doing the toughest work often devote both their personal and professional lives to this task, and many are targeted by far-right groups themselves - some must even remain nameless for their own safety. Governments that choose to respond will need to take some risks - the first being to move beyond simple up-stream prevention and anti-racism work into the hard-end intervention space. Yes, there will be risks, but evidence shows us these methods work.
And the lives of those targeted by far-right violence are worth it - in fact, so are the lives of those who have fallen into hateful ideologies.