EU impotent in Lebanon, as Gaza war tests ties

The EU lacks the influence and joint strategy to become a big player in Lebanon, despite its extensive involvement in Lebanese politics and society, recent months have shown.

EU-Lebanon relations are being tested by the war in neighbouring Israel, with a worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza and regular exchange of fire on Israel’s northern front with Lebanon.

Israel and Hezbollah, Lebanon’s largest militant group and an influential Shia Muslim political party in Beirut, have been engaged in escalating tit-for-tat confrontations since 8 October last year.

Hezbollah is said to be acting in support of Palestinian militant group Hamas, which attacked Israel on 7 October.

Hezbollah is also Iran’s most important partner in the region, but both Hezbollah and Hamas are designated as terrorist organisations by the EU.

The Hezbollah-Israeli fire has displaced tens of thousands on both sides of the border and wounded and killed dozens of civilians.

The 80,000 people displaced from Israel’s north put political pressure on Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stamp out the cross-border threat.

Netanyahu’s government has threatened to escalate unless Hezbollah stops shooting and retreats from south Lebanon.

And any Israeli incursion over its northern border could destroy much of Lebanon’s already weak infrastructure and economy. It might also spark a wider regional conflict.

Diplomatic efforts, led by the US and France, have sought to reach a ceasefire, but are being hindered by the Israel-Lebanon conflict’s deep-rooted history.

Both countries remain at war, technically speaking, since Israel’s last invasion of Lebanon in 2006.

UN Security Council resolution 1701 and UN peacekeeping troops in Lebanon, about a third of whom come from European countries, have helped to prevent violence from flaring again.

Bur both sides have continued to breach the UN resolution and Israel’s northern land border remains disputed.

Migration partner

Throughout the years, Lebanon received large sums of financial support from its Western and Middle Eastern allies for post-war reconstruction, for the government, the economy, and for dealing with 1.5 million Syrian refugees.

But plagued by corruption, mismanagement, and other crises, Beirut has seen many of its old supporters lose interest.

The multi-sectarian country has been without a president for one and a half years, in one example.

The parliament is split between a pro-Hezbollah candidate and another one opposing collaboration with the militant group, despite the mediating efforts of international diplomats.

This impasse has prevented the government from implementing much-needed reforms, such as those necessary for an International Monetary Fund bailout.

But its old friends can’t afford to completely abandon Lebanon.

For one, keeping Lebanon from disintegrating is seen as key to preventing Hezbollah and Iran from de facto taking control and increasing the danger to Israel.

The Lebanese army, by now almost the only still-functioning security force in the country, is largely funded by, among others, the US, Qatar, the UK, and Turkey.

As one of the EU’s southern Mediterranean neighbours, Lebanon has also become an important ally in halting migration towards Europe.

Besides financing humanitarian and development aid, Europe spends millions on its so-called ‘integrated border management’ strategy for Lebanon.

The EU and individual countries, such as the UK, Germany, and the Netherlands, are involved in projects aiming at strengthening Lebanon’s control over its historically porous land border with Syria and the Mediterranean coast — less than 200 km from Cyprus.

The measures are aimed at countering drug, weapons, and human trafficking.

Lack of common strategy

But Europe’s extensive involvement in Lebanon doesn’t automatically make it a significant player.

Besides the question of whether it truly aspires to such a role, recent months have shown that the EU lacks both the influence and unified strategy to do so.

The French mandate of Lebanon until 1946 left France as the EU’s foremost member state maintaining strong historical and continuous ties with Lebanese politics.

French officials are still communicating with Hezbollah’s political wing — contrary to the US, who designated the entire entity a terrorist organisation.

Last month, France drafted the first Western-mediated proposal to Beirut, but key mediators disagree as to what the best approach is.

According to the Lebanese Francophone newspaper L’Orient Le Jour, the US prefers to first reach a ceasefire in Gaza, whereas France thinks the risk of an escalation in Lebanon can’t wait for that approach.

Western diplomats told EUobserver they didn’t see much coordination between the US and France, making it hard to form a unified strategy.

A French diplomatic source called the US “a black box”.

France is also playing a weak hand, says Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank.

It already failed to achieve solutions for Lebanon’s other crises. “France likes to project its influence in Lebanon, but the truth is that the current key actors — Iran, Hezbollah, Israel, Lebanon — are looking at the US. Although all de-escalation efforts are welcome and should be praised, in the end, France has no leverage,” said Barnes-Dacey.

Still, France will keep playing a significant role for both Lebanon and Hezbollah, says Qassem Kassir, a Lebanese commentator seen as being close to Hezbollah.

Lebanon saw the French proposal as a possible “significant step” towards peace, he said. The French diplomat expected that, in the end, “all initiatives will converge”.

Other European countries are more loosely involved on the Lebanese front, either bilaterally or because of their large contributions to UNIFIL — the UN peacekeeping force.

And overall, Europe’s historical ties and economic and political interests are either absent or limited.

The EU is perceived as having a permanently weak position in Lebanon.

It often has to defend its presence, being blamed for keeping Syrian refugees in Lebanon, even though “they [Lebanese authorities] know that Europe will pay when necessary” to stop them from coming, said the French diplomat.

Sometimes Lebanese people don’t understand what the EU stands for.

“There is little esprit de corps in formulating the EU’s foreign policy”, said an EU contractor who worked in Beirut, but who asked not to be named.

“We lack a shared strategic vision,” the contact added.

The lack of a grand strategy for the region has had a negative impact already, for example when European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen infuriated her foreign policy directorate by taking a strong pro-Israeli stance on behalf of the whole institution.

Lack of strategy was also exposed when EU neighbourhood commissioner Olivér Várhelyi announced he was to suspend aid to Palestine in October, a move that was later reversed.

EU is no political actor

Almost six months into the war in Israel, and some European countries have slowly changed their tone regarding after initially giving their “unconditional support” to Israel, while caring less for the Palestinian people.

Some countries at-first suspended funding to UNRWA (the UN agency for Palestinians, which is also widely active in camps in Lebanon) because of Israeli terrorism accusations, but the EU later promised to proceed with payments.

In Lebanon this smoothed strained relations, but others already see possibly permanent changes in the attitude of the EU’s local counterparts.

“Some Lebanese tell me they’re taking a risk by meeting with the EU, given our support for the devastation of Gaza. Local NGOs say that they should explain human rights to us”, said the EU contractor.

Besides damaged relations, the events showed the EU’s political impotence in Lebanon, said Barnes-Dacey.

“It [Europe] simply does not bring enough to the table,” he said.

And given its small stature, some suggest the EU could play a secondary role in the context of post-war negotiations, instead of pretending to be an active player.

“Once there is a ceasefire, they might offer something like an economic package. But regarding war and peace, the EU has currently nothing to say,” said Barnes-Dacey.

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