After Beirut explosion, will EU reconsider its long-term assistance to Lebanon?

After Beirut explosion, will EU reconsider its long-term assistance to Lebanon?
Credit: Belga

The European Commission pledged €30 million in new funding at Sunday's virtual donor conference on aid to the Lebanese people to meet the most pressing humanitarian needs after the explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate on Tuesday in the harbour of the capital of Lebanon.

The explosion killed more than 150 people, wounded at least 5,000, rendered a quarter of a million people homeless and destroyed hospitals and food storages.

The EU aid comes on top of the of the €33 million already announced by Commission President von der Leyen during her telephone conversation on Thursday with the Lebanese Prime-Minister.

The aid from EU member states includes among others the deployment of over 100 highly trained search-and-rescue firefighters, with vehicles, dogs and emergency medical equipment, and the offer of additional teams, in particular for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear detection.

The disastrous explosion could not have occurred at a worse moment in Lebanon’s tumultuous history. While fighting the coronavirus crisis, it is facing a deep economic crisis, with protests against the political establishment for its corruption and mismanagement of the economy.

Public utilities such as waste management and electricity are not functioning. A financial crisis has limited cash withdrawals from the banks and skyrocketed public debt to 160 % of the gross domestic product. Lebanon has also received 1 million refugees from the civil war in Syria, which is more than any other country per capita.

The Lebanese president Michel Aoun has listed a number of possible causes to the explosion, such as negligence, accident and foreign intervention, but the preliminary findings already point to a mysterious shipment in 2013 of ammonium nitrate, a chemical compound mostly used for fertilizers but also for explosives.

The cargo was stored in a hangar in the harbour, with nobody claiming ownership of it. Fireworks were later stored in the same hangar against the protests of staff in the harbour. The authorities knew about the danger but did not act until it was too late. On Tuesday (4 August), welding work close to the hangar ignited the fireworks which would cause the nuclear-like explosion of the ammonium.

Hezbollah’s role

If there is any politician in Lebanon to whom the explosion did not come as a surprise, it is Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, which plays a dominant political and military role in Lebanon.  Hezbollah acts as a proxy of Iran, supports the Assad regime in Damascus and threatens Israel with war.

Considered a terrorist group by the US and some EU member states, Hezbollah is known to store ammunition and missiles in civilian neighbourhoods. Since the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, which it provoked, Hezbollah has built up its arsenal of all kinds of missiles and is storing them also in Beirut.

In a speech from his hiding place in Lebanon, Nasrallah denied any knowledge of the ammonium storage in the harbour. This could be true but he also boasted of knowing more about the harbour in Haifa, a town in northern Israel.

In fact, only a few years ago he threatened to bomb the petrochemical industry in the Israeli harbour, including the ammonium storages there. This would correspond to a nuclear explosion, he said. Since then Israel has probably emptied the ammonium storage in the harbour area but there are still other combustible and noxious chemicals.

After the explosion in Beirut, the anger against Nasrallah and the other Lebanese politicians has reached a boiling point and protesters demand their resignation. President Aoun has mentioned new elections but this would be a short-term solution since the governance structure in the country is the root cause of the political problems in the country.

Sectarian state

Lebanon is a former French mandate which was carved out from Syria after WWI after the demise of the Ottoman empire. It gained independence after WWII to the price of an inbuild sectarian structure in all government institutions aimed at preserving a balance between its different ethnic and religious groups, such as Maronite Christians, Orthodox Christians, Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims and Druze.

In fact, Lebanon has become an ungovernable country, devastated in the past by civil war and in recent years a failed state kept hostage to Hezbollah. French President Macron certainly knows it better than other EU leaders. Surrounded by angry protestors during his visit to Beirut on Thursday, he promised that, “We’ll not allow the (EU) assistance to fall into corrupted hands.”

The Commission is also aware of the need of political and economic reforms in Lebanon but has at this stage of urgent emergency aid stopped short of telling the brutal truth to the Lebanese leaders by linking long-term assistance to reforms.

Von der Leyen said that the Commission will consider further support depending on the on-going humanitarian needs assessment. It is telling that EU’s humanitarian funding will be not be delivered directly to the Lebanese authorities but “channelled through UN agencies, NGOs and international organizations and will be subject to strict control”.

France, which initiated today’s donor conference, has probably learned some lessons since April 2018, when it hosted an international conference in Paris in support of Lebanon’s development and reforms in the country (the CEDRE conference after its French acronym). Participants pledged to support Lebanon with more than US$ 10 billion in loans, on condition that it would streamline procedures.

How much, if anything, of this aid that has been realised is unclear. At the conference in 2018, the EU did announce a package of up to €150 million to support the revitalisation of the Lebanese economy “as part of its longstanding commitment to the economic development of Lebanon”.

“All the commitments were linked to reforms which Lebanon has not embarked on so far,” Peter Stano, lead spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, told The Brussels Times. “No funding has been disbursed yet, due to the inability of the Lebanese political leaders to agree on the necessary economic reforms.” Instead, EU has focused on supporting the Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

EU position

Eric Mamer, the chief spokesperson of the Commission, confirmed that the EU at this stage is focusing on the urgent humanitarian needs of people right now after the explosion in Beirut. In a second stage, the Commission is also willing to take part in an assessment of the future long-term reconstruction needs.

He declined to reply to questions about conditionality, i.e. linking reconstruction assistance to reforms in Lebanon, and referred to a coordination mechanism which will be put in place to ensure the effective use of the EU funding. Such a mechanism “to ensure synergy of the aid that the EU and the member states will provide” was proposed in a letter by EU leaders von der Leyen and Michel.

This is a long shot from the economic reforms, not to speak the political reforms, that are required to stabilize Lebanon. Peter Stano, the foreign affairs spokesperson, was more blunt. “Lebanon was facing systemic problems already before the blast in Beirut. What happened is a wake-up call to the Lebanese politicians to unite and embark on a very serious reform process.”

“It’s so obvious to the Lebanese people and to outsiders that Lebanon needs profound reform,” he added without mentioning the country’s sectarian structure.

Whether the Lebanese politicians can disregard their vested interests and reform the government structure remains to be seen. It would amount to a revolution but this is exactly what the people is demanding in the demonstrations.

What is EU’s position on Hezbollah - should it disarm?

“Our position on Hezbollah is clear and hasn’t changed,” Stano replied. “Hezbollah must be disarmed and this is also in line with a UN Security Council resolution. The only relevant actor in Lebanon that should be allowed to be armed is the Lebanese army.”

He added that it was to early to speculate on who is responsible for the explosion when the investigation is still on-going. “It’s very important to carry out an investigation. The Lebanese people needs answers.” But the Lebanese people has lost all trust in its government and political system and a credible answer would require an international investigation.

M Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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