Lebanon’s collapse is a problem for Europe


The European Parliament has promised targeted sanctions against Lebanese politicians if they destabilize the recently formed government in the country. This is an extension of the politics the European Parliament used to coerce Beirut’s political elite to come together to finally form a government on September 10 after a year of bickering, delays and mutual blame games. .

Such a policy might seem odd: the European Union is generally not in the realm of nation-building, and if it were to go into this area, threaten sanctions against the very people it wants in the world. government seems to be a counterintuitive way to proceed. . But as the country falls back into violence, after months of economic disaster, the EU could find itself playing a vital role. Lebanon is currently Europe’s most pressing foreign policy challenge, and the EU has a vital interest in preserving good governance there. The collapse of Lebanon, which absorbed millions of refugees fleeing the war in Syria and other conflicts, would create a new wave of refugees heading to Europe and lead to a political crisis.

Lebanon is one of the most diverse countries in the Middle East, but it is also one of the most unstable. The country lacks a majority political identity, with roughly equal numbers of Sunnis, Shiites and Christians, all internally divided, maintaining a fragile coexistence. The recent deadly epidemic fighting between Hezbollah and its opponents in Beirut, killing at least seven people, demonstrates this fragility even as political actors have remained remarkably stable over the decades.

The European Parliament has promised targeted sanctions against Lebanese politicians if they destabilize the recently formed government in the country. This is an extension of the politics the European Parliament used to coerce Beirut’s political elite to come together to finally form a government on September 10 after a year of bickering, delays and mutual blame games. .

Such a policy might seem odd: the European Union is generally not in the realm of nation-building, and if it were to go into this area, threaten sanctions against the very people it wants in the world. government seems to be a counterintuitive way to proceed. . But as the country slips back into violence, after months of economic disaster, the EU could find itself playing a pivotal role. Lebanon is currently Europe’s most pressing foreign policy challenge, and the EU has a vital interest in preserving good governance there. The collapse of Lebanon, which has absorbed millions of refugees fleeing the war in Syria and other conflicts, would create a new wave of refugees heading to Europe and lead to a political crisis.

Lebanon is one of the most diverse countries in the Middle East, but it is also one of the most unstable. The country lacks a majority political identity, with roughly equal numbers of Sunnis, Shiites, and Christians, all internally divided, maintaining a fragile coexistence. The recent deadly epidemic fighting between Hezbollah and its opponents in Beirut, killing at least seven people, demonstrates this fragility even as political actors have remained remarkably stable over the decades.

Given the Israeli and Syrian invasions and occupations of the country, its own propensity for infighting and civil war, and the fallout from other conflicts, the fact that Lebanon has succeeded in building any kind of government stable in recent history is in itself a miracle.

But this miracle has only happened sporadically and is based mainly on a rigid division of government leadership positions: the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni, the speaker of parliament a Shiite, the deputy prime minister. and the vice-president of the Eastern Orthodox Christian parliament, and so on. The dark side of this system is that it has fostered the formation of a sclerotic and uncompetitive political elite that does not respond to the democratic demands of the people and that has long been shielded from normal democratic control by the threat that such measures could. destabilize the government and rekindle open conflict. This shield against scrutiny has produced incompetence, lies and corruption – and the actions of the EU, associated with and supporting Lebanese democratic renewal, may be a rare chance to break it.

Things came to a head in 2019, when a wave of popular protests swept across Lebanon, specifically targeting the incompetence and corruption of officials. Exceptionally, the demonstrations were predominantly secular and crossed confessional boundaries and political affinities. Ordinary citizens gathered side by side in the streets of Lebanon to protest against a corrupt and dying elite, regardless of who they claimed to represent.

The 2019 uprising encountered state repression and sporadic supporters violence but failed to achieve its ambitious goal of overthrowing the Lebanese political elite and redesigning the Lebanese social contract. It lacked coherent political leadership or a comprehensive, unified political platform and struggled to build large coalitions around specific political goals or policies. Despite widespread sympathy for his principles, the Lebanese have not deserted their parties en masse for this now amorphous civic movement.

But there was a lasting and healthy effect, nonetheless. Politicians and their business allies now find themselves under constant scrutiny from the media and civil society, indicating a new kind of accountability in Lebanese affairs. Taboos have been broken, and the Lebanese streets have been in turmoil ever since.

These protests lasted for months as Lebanon sank into financial ruin. The COVID-19 pandemic and, more dramatically, the explosion in the port of Beirut, during which a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate exploded in August, killed more than 200 people, causing considerable property damage and in causing some 250,000 damage. homeless people. Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned amid widespread outrage at the government’s negligence that had allowed this catastrophe to occur. The explosion marked a catastrophic year for Lebanon, with COVID-19 cases skyrocketing and the currency collapsing amid rapid inflation. In what the World Bank has called one of the worst economic crises since the mid-1800s, large parts of the Lebanese population have fallen below the poverty line as the cost of living skyrockets. Political elites were in no rush to form a government to deal with this emergency, and Lebanon remained without a cabinet until very recently.

The same elites had a very different experience of the crisis, as they simply had a lot more money in foreign currency, much of which was would have been sent abroad at the start of the crisis. And Hezbollah operatives have a line of hard currency from Iran into US dollars anyway. In theory, many of them would make more money if the economy was revitalized, but since this would require reforms that would undermine their own position, they would prefer the status quo and are okay with the opportunity cost.

The explosion exposed the rotten undersides of Lebanese governance; corruption and incompetence, shared among all factions, had created the perfect disaster. The public still demands that heads fall for the blast – the recent fighting in Beirut is largely tied to the fate of the investigation into those responsible for the blast. Many have come to doubt the story that the ammonium nitrate was on its way to a commercial buyer in Mozambique and was only unloaded because the ship carrying it was impounded in Beirut for reasons legal. It is now increasingly believed that Hezbollah was involved in purchasing or distributing the material for its own use or to transfer it to the Assad regime in Syria. Yet it is one of the many versions a story that has not been uncovered precisely because the political elites have not let the investigative and judicial processes take their course. Hezbollah’s insistence on removing the judge leading the investigation only deepened suspicions about his own role in the disaster.

But if the political process is allowed to resume normally, the will to be accountable could come to life and catch up with the very people who are currently responsible for the political process. This is why politics in Lebanon has been stuck for a year and why much of the government is okay with it continuing, even as families dig through the garbage for food and the lights go out.

The problem for Europe is that the longer the political crisis, and therefore the economic and security crises, persists in Lebanon, the more likely it is that the state will completely collapse. This presents many dangers for Europe. Lebanon hosts some 1.5 million Syrian refugees, in addition to 500,000 refugees from other conflicts, mostly Palestinians, out of a total population of less than 7 million. While Lebanon experienced a period of relative stability just as the Syrian civil war was going through its worst phases, the country’s political and economic crisis is wreaking havoc, especially on the refugee population: UN agencies recently warned that 90 percent of refugees in Lebanon currently live in extreme poverty. This is already a recipe for mass migration, but if the security situation escalates, flight is inevitable. With few refuges in the area, the most sensible route will be to head to Europe.

And that begs the question: Can Europe absorb another million or more refugees? Economically, of course. Europe is in a much better position to provide refuge than Lebanon ever was, even in its best days. But politically? The 2015 refugee wave was extremely destabilizing for national and European politics, leading to increased support for far-right and neofascist parties across the continent and jeopardizing the liberal democratic political order. What if another million Syrians started heading for Europe’s borders just as the democratic tide appears to have turned against the far right?

The European Parliament seems desperate to avoid this eventuality, which is why it is shaking hands more firmly with politicians in Beirut. Of course, Lebanon itself is feeling the enormous pressure to welcome this refugee population, but the country needs a functioning government, and its people deserve greater responsibility from their politicians. If Europe wants Lebanon to continue absorbing these refugees, it must provide the help it desperately needs, but that help must go to a competent class of politicians rather than thugs and thieves. European countries, especially France, have a big influence on Beirut’s political class, not least because they could fly to Lebanon, but they spend in Paris and Milan and keep their bank accounts abroad.

But the situation remains precarious. Not all politicians will react in the same way to the threat of sanctions. The wild card will likely, once again, be Hezbollah, which continues to have support from Damascus and Tehran. If Hezbollah leaders fear paying the price for the Beirut explosion, they might be less worried about French sanctions and more worried about their own survival.


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