Lebanon’s economic and political crisis represents an important issue for European policymakers. Given the central role the country plays in the eastern Mediterranean region, its further destabilisation is likely to spread to the broader Middle East, with significant consequences also for Europe. Over the past twenty years, both the European Union and its member states, with France in the lead, have played a key role in sustaining Lebanon’s fragile economy and supporting the burden posed by the Syrian refugee crisis. Yet, since the failure of the initiative launched by French President Emmanuel Macron in the aftermath of the Beirut port blast, they have failed to put forward a policy capable of addressing Lebanon’s compounding crises. The challenge today is how to mitigate the difficult humanitarian conditions in the country while nurturing bottom-up attempts at reforming the Lebanese state.
The limits of the European approach to Lebanon
From a certain standpoint, the post-civil war Lebanese state has worked as a dysfunctional machine powered by the attraction of foreign deposits and international loans. For nearly twenty years, financial assistance and development aid have served as the backbone of Lebanon’s economic stability. International donors’ conferences like Paris I (2001), II (2002) and III (2007) provided the country with billions of dollars, with little to no check on how these resources would be used. None of these conferences managed to strengthen Lebanon’s economy, let alone solve its longstanding financial frailties. Over this period, European countries, spearheaded for historical reasons by France, played a key role in sustaining Lebanon’s finances and mobilising other international donors toward this goal. As part of these efforts, the EU allocated funds for the country’s economic and infrastructural development. In addition, it invested substantial resources to support its security sector and improve the provision of public services. However, despite its commitment, the European Union did not succeed in prompting significant changes. Even later attempts at imposing conditionality on financial aid, like at the CEDRE conference of 2018, failed due to the inability of Lebanon’s political class to implement any kind of reform. In this context, the EU and other international donors were compelled to cease direct financial aid, limiting themselves to addressing the difficult humanitarian situation in the country. At the time of the CEDRE conference, the Syrian refugee crisis had already been at the centre of the EU’s Lebanon policy for years. With the country’s financial meltdown and the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the worsening living conditions in Lebanon pushed international actors like the EU to intensify their humanitarian initiatives.
Over the past two decades, European policy-makers have been criticised for having just a confined understanding of Lebanon’s cumulative crisis. Additionally, development projects funded by the EU in the past years have also sometimes been blamed for contributing to the country’s endemic corruption. The European approach has further been criticised in Lebanon for not addressing the responsibility of the political class consistently. For instance, despite having introduced for the first time clear conditions for the use of international funds, the 2018 CEDRE conference was described as a “gift” to former Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri’s campaign for the elections of the same year.
Responding to the Beirut port blast
To a certain extent, the 2020 Beirut port blast represented a wake-up call for European policymakers. French President Emmanuel Macron was the first foreign leader to travel to the country after the explosion. On his visit to Beirut, on August 6, Macron expressed his support to the Lebanese population and promised “a new political pact” for the country. From there, Macron’s plan followed two distinct avenues. On the one hand, just a few days after the first presidential visit, France hosted a donor conference that raised some $300 million in aid. On the other, Macron presented an ambitious reform plan that included measures such as a capital control law, a forensic audit of the central bank, the implementation of an anti-corruption strategy, and the reform of the electricity sector and the judiciary. In discussing such reform plan with Lebanese politicians during a second visit, more contentious issues such as the disarmament of Hezbollah and the relations with Israel were left aside. Although hopeful, Macron’s initiative faced two kinds of limitations. First, by having to engage with Lebanon’s established political elite, he stepped into a quagmire made of rivalries and a cross-fire of vetoes, in which Paris has little room to intervene. Second, his intention to include all Lebanese parties in the initiative raised concern in Washington and Riyadh, where the choice to dialogue with Hezbollah was openly criticised. As the French roadmap seemed to be moving forward, the hardening of the US stance on Hezbollah led to the failure of the discussions and the resignation of the prime minister-designate Mustapha Adib. With the collapse of the negotiations, Macron’s gambit was doomed to fail.
Aside from Macron’s visits, the EU and its member states were rather quick in responding to the explosion. Soon after the event, EU authorities provided humanitarian and logistical support to Lebanon. Medical and food supplies were immediately shipped to the country, while European search and rescue experts were mobilised through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism. Later, the EU played a pivotal role in establishing the UN-led framework for Reform, Recovery, and Reconstruction, an action plan aiming at addressing the consequences of the explosion. Besides offering economic support, the project provided a blueprint for popular participation, with the ideation of a consultative process participated by the private sector and the civil society. But while the framework represented an innovation in international aid practices the causes of Lebanon’s political and economic crisis remained unaddressed. In July 2021, the EU tried to take a step forward when the Council adopted a framework for targeted sanctions on Lebanese politicians. This regime provided for the possibility of imposing travel bans and asset freezes on persons and entities considered to be obstructing the government formation, hampering reform plans or engaging in financial misconduct and unauthorised export of capital. However, once the Mikati government was formed in September, the EU Council decided to avoid going forward with the punitive measures. As such, the sanctions risked putting too much pressure on the political class, possibly undermining the European efforts to see some kind of reform in the short run. This well represents the limits of the European approach to Lebanon.
Charting a way forward
The parliamentary elections scheduled for May 15 bear significant importance for the future of Lebanon. Even though they are unlikely to result in a radical change in the composition of the parliament, they might represent a pivotal step in the process of reforming Lebanon’s political system. In the past months, the EU has reaffirmed its commitment to supporting the Lebanese electoral process. However, the mandate of the electoral mission that arrived in Lebanon in early April does not include direct fraud monitoring, and its work is only meant to provide recommendations for future elections. This may represent an issue in a country where monitoring mechanisms are weak, political intimidation is common, and in the past, vote-buying and other forms of electoral fraud have often been reported.
Whatever the results of the polls will be, the EU and its member states will need to address the flaws of their policies towards Lebanon. In this regard, many analysts have suggested a policy approach that prioritises the well-being of the Lebanese population over governance reforms. Following this approach, the EU should support the many initiatives undertaken by the civil society in the country to reduce the dire consequences of the economic crisis and promote a new political culture. Further, if sanctions are considered ineffective for bringing about political change in the country, other measures might be used to pressure the Lebanese political and economic elites. A step in this direction was taken in March when France, Germany and Luxembourg froze several properties and assets owned by Lebanon’s Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh in these countries. Above all, the EU and its member states should seize the window of opportunity opened by the elections. Once the polls close, they should try to encourage the speed up of the government formation process and incentivise key reforms. A change is needed, as the policies implemented so far by the European Union and its member states are unlikely to prevent Lebanon’s further collapse. Kicking the can down the road will not help the Lebanese, nor will it preserve European interests in the Middle East in the long run.