Beyond euro aid: Why the EU must double down on a sinking Lebanon

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On 2 May 2024, President Von der Leyen’s €1 billion pledge until 2027 represents a commendable step; it is a drop compared to the multi-billion the World Bank estimates Lebanon needs annually to weather its current crisis. Lebanon, a nation teetering on the brink of collapse, desperately needs the European Union (EU) to increase its support significantly. The potential consequences of Lebanon’s collapse, such as a humanitarian catastrophe, regional instability, and a surge in migration, underscore the situation’s urgency.

A perfect storm of crises

Lebanon finds itself at the mercy of a perfect storm of crises, each element threatening to engulf the nation. The looming spectre of war with Israel, compounded by economic collapse, political deadlock, and the weight of over 1.5 million Syrian refugees and more than 250,000 Palestinian refugees, has plunged the country into a precarious state. The stability of Lebanon is not only crucial for its well-being but also for regional peace. The European Union, a stalwart advocate for prosperity and stability through initiatives like the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) founded in 2004 on principles of democracy, the rule of law, and human rights, cannot afford to remain idle.

The recent escalation of hostilities in south Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah exacerbates the threat of a catastrophic conflict for Lebanon. As of May, 93,040 individuals (51% females) have been displaced from south Lebanon due to the ongoing hostilities; as of 30 April, 1,359 casualties have been reported, including 344 deaths. Among these, at least 73 civilian deaths have been confirmed by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). On 23 April, an Israeli airstrike killed a woman and her 10-year-old niece and wounded four other children and their grandparents in Bint Jbeil, South Lebanon. Lastly, on 25 April, Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), visited South Lebanon, where he witnessed the impact of more than six months of hostilities on local communities and refugees. The scars of previous wars still haunt the Lebanese people, and the prospect of a new conflict is nothing short of terrifying. As the region teeters on the brink, the EU must use its diplomatic influence to advocate for a ceasefire in both Gaza and Lebanon, working to de-escalate the hostilities. By engaging with all stakeholders, including Iran, the EU can pursue a diplomatic resolution that addresses Hezbollah’s grievances while safeguarding Lebanon’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

However, the threat of war is merely one facet of Lebanon’s multifaceted crisis. The nation’s political apparatus is paralysed by internal strife and rampant corruption, hindering efforts to address the economic turmoil that has plunged millions into poverty. It is imperative that the EU supports political reforms and the election of a capable leader committed to combating corruption and reinstating public faith in the government.

Beyond band-aids: corruption, the root cause

Lebanon’s intricate sectarian politics/Confessionalism and weak institutions lie at the heart of its woes. The post-civil war power-sharing system has fostered a culture of corruption and governmental gridlock. Short-term aid risks being misappropriated unless the EU pushes for meaningful reforms championed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF): transparency, anti-corruption measures, and restructuring state-owned enterprises.

From bystanders to leaders

The EU can play a pivotal role with its diplomatic influence and financial resources. First, the EU can leverage its influence to de-escalate tensions with Israel and push for a lasting ceasefire. Second, the EU can collaborate with regional partners to develop a comprehensive strategy for Lebanon that prioritises reforms and strengthens civil society. Third, the EU can condition its financial aid on demonstrable progress towards these reforms.

Double down on refugees, not just border control

While the current focus on border control is understandable, it is not a long-term solution. The EU recently provided a bulk of the aid — 736 million euros — to support Syrian refugees who exceeded 2 million in Lebanon, as it was reported that about 40,000 Syrian babies were born in a year. In comparison, two hundred million euros are meant to bolster Lebanese security services in enforcing border and migration control, according to figures provided by the Cypriot government, instead of working towards safe resettlement, supporting civil society organisations that promote human rights and democratic values, empowering the Lebanese people to advocate for change. The EU should also support programmes that promote safe resettlement for refugees and empower local NGOs that uphold human rights and democratic values.

A looming domino effect demands attention

Turning a blind eye to Lebanon’s crisis is not an option. Should Lebanon falter, it could set off a chain reaction of dire consequences – sparking regional conflicts, fuelling extremism, and potentially triggering a mass exodus of refugees towards Europe. The economic fallout would be substantial, with the EU already serving as Lebanon’s largest trading partner. Lebanon finds itself at a critical juncture. EU inaction risks setting off a chain reaction – broader regional conflict, an upsurge in extremism, and a potential refugee crisis heading towards Europe. Already burdened with hosting a substantial number of Syrian refugees, Lebanon could become a tipping point in the migration challenge. The economic collapse has plunged millions into poverty, leaving them unable to afford necessities. The spectre of a humanitarian catastrophe, marked by famine and illness, looms large. Disregarding this crisis threatens to destabilise the entire region and create a security nightmare for Europe.

A thriving Lebanon is not just a moral imperative but an economic necessity. As Lebanon’s foremost trading partner, the EU exchanged goods worth €6.26 billion in 2022 alone, with EU exports totalling €5.66 billion. Additionally, Lebanon’s historical role as a trading hub in the Middle East makes it an invaluable ally for the EU in accessing the broader region. Its collapse would have far-reaching economic consequences for the EU. Furthermore, a failed Lebanon would further tarnish the EU’s reputation as a defender of human rights and regional stability.

Time for decisive action

As Lebanon teeters on the edge, the European Union (EU) must rise with decisive action, highlighting its leadership and unwavering commitment to fundamental values. The EU can facilitate Lebanon’s recovery and pave the way for a more resilient and prosperous future through substantial financial aid tied to reform benchmarks, diplomatic engagement, and bolstering Lebanese civil society. The intricate landscape of Lebanese politics may seem daunting, but the perils of inaction loom larger. With its diplomatic influence and ample financial capabilities, the EU is well-equipped to steer towards peaceful resolutions and endorse crucial reforms while respecting Lebanon’s sovereignty. The time for prolonged deliberation has passed; committed leadership is needed now. Collaborating with regional allies, the EU must devise a comprehensive strategy rooted in the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) principles. This endeavour transcends Lebanon alone; it is about safeguarding European security and upholding the EU’s foundational values. The fate of the Middle East, and potentially Europe, hangs in the balance, making EU passivity untenable. Action is imperative.

Lebanon teeters on the brink of collapse, demanding urgent intervention from the EU. With robust diplomatic guidance, targeted financial support contingent on reform, and empowerment of civil society, the EU can guide Lebanon through its crises towards a more stable and prosperous future. The responsibility for Lebanon’s fate, and potentially that of the entire region, rests squarely on the shoulders of the EU.

The future of Lebanon and potentially the entire region hangs in the balance. The EU must act decisively, demonstrating its leadership and commitment to its core values. By providing substantial financial aid contingent on reform, fostering diplomacy, and empowering Lebanese civil society, the EU can help Lebanon rise from the ashes and build a more stable and prosperous future.

 

Abbas Sibai is a Policy Leader Fellow (PLF) at the EUI’s Florence School of Transnational Governance (STG). As a PLF, Abbas delves into examining the Strategic Plan 2020-2024 of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), with a dedicated focus on the dynamic southern neighbourhood amidst evolving geopolitical shifts. Abbas Sibai also represents the Postdoctoral Fellows at the EUI Executive Committee and is an EUI’s Ambassador within the CIVICA university alliance.