As Lebanon on the verge of collapse, EU debates sanctions | Middle East | News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW

Lebanon continues to collapse as its economic and political crisis deepens. The country has not had a government for almost a year now and its economy is collapsing after decades of mismanagement and corruption.

Over the past month, there have been both absurd and horrific stories coming from the small Mediterranean nation.

For example, just as the Lebanese military announced it would be offering tourists $ 150 (€ 126) in helicopter tours to earn cash, information came from the northern city of Tripoli. of the country, according to which armed men roamed the streets and set up roadblocks.

Sad record

It is estimated that almost half of all Lebanese now live below the poverty line thanks to the current crisis. An assessment released yesterday by UNICEF found that around 77% of Lebanese households do not have enough food or enough money to buy food.

Earlier this month, the World Bank reported that globally, the Lebanese crisis may well be one of the three most severe since the mid-19th century.

Children rummage through garbage cans in Beirut for anything they can sell

Since 2018, Lebanon’s gross domestic product (GDP) has fallen, as has the informal exchange rate, World Bank researchers said. “Such a brutal and rapid contraction is usually associated with conflict or war,” they noted.

The Lebanese pound, or pound, is pegged to the US dollar, but this fixed exchange rate is not widely available, which has led to an informal currency market with unfavorable rates.

Most Lebanese blame their leaders for the crisis. After the end of the civil war that lasted nearly 15 years in Lebanon in 1990, peace negotiations divided power between 18 religious sects. The peace agreement effectively paved the way for decades of corruption and the resulting near-collapse of the Lebanese banking system.

“Hold them accountable”

“I think they should be held accountable because they are the ones who led this country down this path,” Beirut resident Gilbert Kfoury told DW of Lebanese politicians. “We now have a bankrupt country with no electricity, deteriorating infrastructure, widespread famine, no fuel and no security. Despite all of this, they are still sitting in their chairs, with no responsibility whatsoever.”

“I think the EU should impose sanctions on Lebanese politicians on the assumption that the majority is corrupt,” admitted another man from Beirut, Moustapha Mourad. “This is the only way for them to start negotiating [to form a government], he argued.

A Rolls-Royce in front of a Beirut club.

The life of the rich Lebanese is very far from that of many compatriots

Some European Union politicians agree with angry Lebanese residents. Since May, officials working for the 27-country bloc have been preparing potential sanctions against Lebanese politicians.

Many of the elite and wealthy Lebanese regularly travel to Europe and have homes and money there. In mid-June, the Reuters news agency said reporters saw a diplomatic note stating that sanctions would be imposed on Lebanese suspected of “corruption, obstructing efforts to form a government, financial mismanagement and of human rights violations “.

Despair and Frustration

Visiting Lebanon last month, EU Foreign Policy Representative Josep Borrell confirmed this. “We are ready to help you, if that’s what you want,” he said after the visit. “But if there are more obstacles to solutions to the current multidimensional crisis in the country, we will have to consider other plans of action … including targeted sanctions.”

There has been no other official word on when, or even if, sanctions could be used against the Lebanese leadership. However, France and Germany seem to support the idea. At a conference calling for a further investigation into the deadly explosion in the port of Beirut, the German embassy in Lebanon confirmed that the EU was considering sanctions against the Lebanese leadership.

France had already taken unilateral action and started blocking visas for some Lebanese officials in April this year.

Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, right, meets with European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell in Beirut, Lebanon.

Josep Borrell (left) met with Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri in June to discuss progress

“I think European governments are feeling quite desperate and there is a lot of frustration,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey, Middle East and North Africa program manager at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “But I don’t think the question is really whether [imposing sanctions] is quite difficult, it is a question of whether they will be effective. “

The Lebanese elite “laughs”

The entire Lebanese system needs a fundamental change, Barnes-Dacey told DW. “But the Lebanese political elite would probably be ready to see the country deteriorate further [rather] than to take measures that would threaten their own hold on political and economic power, ”he argued.

Joseph Bahout, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs based at the American University of Beirut, agreed.

People spend time in the dark during power cuts due to fuel shortages in Beirut.

There have been more power cuts in Lebanon as fuel prices rise

“The Lebanese political class is very cynical,” he said. “They have seen worse and they are laughing about it.” As an example, he cited the French ban on visas. “They [the members of the Lebanese elite] usually have two or three passports and they just enter Europe through another country, like Italy, “Bahout noted.” Then we see pictures of them shopping in Paris or Nice. “

Potential danger

Imposing sanctions could also be dangerous, added Shahin Vallée, head of the geo-economic program at the German Council on Foreign Relations, who drafted a September 2020 policy paper on the Lebanese crisis. “Because either you sanction all Lebanese politicians en bloc, or you apply targeted sanctions,” he said. “But then you could create an imbalance in the political system. The sanctions could backfire on you.”

“By choosing politician X over politician Y, the EU would pit some against others,” Bahout agreed.

Bahout and Vallée both believe there are better ways forward than sanctions. Instead, they recommend putting more pressure on the Lebanese financial system. Vallée pleads for more transparency within it and Bahout thinks that the European financial agencies could do much more to facilitate this.

People line up their cars to buy fuel in Beirut, Lebanon.

As fuel prices have increased, queues at local gas stations have also increased

Bank secrecy in the EU, Switzerland

“Frankly, what would be more useful for the Lebanese than sanctions is better access to banking information from countries like France or Switzerland,” Bahout explained, adding that this is where many allegedly corrupt Lebanese are suspected of having moved their money.

“It’s a bit hypocritical. These places have evidence of what was’ stolen ‘from the Lebanese public. I think it would be better for the EU to say’ look, we know what you did and we will help. the Lebanese to expose you ‘. “

At the same time, the EU should also continue to provide support to the country’s most vulnerable as well as local advocates for change, experts said.

“I continue to believe that the best thing the EU can do is support national civil society and youth organizations trying to change the political system from the bottom up,” Vallee concluded.

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