The EU needs to step up its long-term commitment in Lebanon after the Beirut explosion. Axel Müller has a few suggestions on what such a policy should entail.
The Beirut blast was followed by a blast of empathy around the globe. In no time, our newsfeeds on social media were flooded with noble words. Think “Lebanon is not alone”. Yet, they remain hollow words if they are not followed by concrete political action.
Much has been said and written about the urgent need to tackle the very root causes of the miserable situation Lebanon finds itself in. Corruption, distrust, unemployment, political egoisms, you name it. All correct but tricky to resolve.
All the more important does it seem for the actors involved to get their priorities straight and act decisively. As for the European Union, this means going beyond a quick financial injection and sending some relief teams who leave the country as soon as the last missing person is declared dead.
What may sound overly harsh is part of a sometimes disappointing reality. Whenever a hot spot occurs somewhere around the world, European political leaders are among the first to promise support both immediately and on the long run. Only with the vanishing attention of the media comes a changing agenda. New hot spots popping up elsewhere make the Europeans (and most people in general) oblivious. Eventually, when support would still be needed, decision-makers already have turned a blind eye to what in fact still are hot spots. Like Lebanon has been for years. And will remain to be for years to come.
In order to avoid that while trying to see the silver lining of the situation, let us have a look at sociology, namely a theory on so-called relative deprivation that appears to be quite telling in the case of Lebanon.
Reconstruction can only be successful if it is understood in a broader sense of getting Lebanon back on its feet.
In a nutshell, this theory assumes that minorities rebel every time they feel deprived and see a realistic chance of actual enhancement for themselves. So far, so good. Obviously, Lebanese not just since the blast but for at least about a year, perhaps even decades, meet these criteria. With one crucial detail: The people of a state are no minority.
While Lebanon is a religiously and ethnically very diverse country, the thawra looming on the streets bridges various gaps that so many Western observers doomed unbridgeable in the first place. If the theory is worth for one thing it is to shed light on how important it is for foreign powers to act on behalf of the Lebanese people.
Yet, this insight can only be reached by self-scrutiny by the Western decision-makers. EU officials, concretely, should thus start questioning their actions undertaken so far. Sending some 33 million euros, doctors, nurses, and rescue teams as a first aid kit was very important and laudable. To be true to its word, however, more must happen.
The EU issued a statement declaring all member states are urged “to intensify their support to Lebanon both for the immediate needs and for the longer-term reconstruction”.
Reconstruction, though, can only be successful if it is understood in a broader sense of getting Lebanon back on its feet. Economically, politically, socially. Merely reconstructing the port of Beirut will not suffice.
If the EU wants to act as one player, it should send its personnel first and national politicians like Macron or Maas second.
That is also the reason why we should be critical of visits of important European politicians in the Lebanese capital. Sure, symbolic politics is part of the political game and it does indeed mean something when no less than French president Macron is the first foreign official to visit the wrecked capital. He further underlined his commitment by returning less than a month after his first stay.
But Macron is not Michel (who paid the city a visit two days after Macron’s first appearance) or von der Leyen and represents France more than Europe. If the EU wants to act as one player, it should send its personnel first and national politicians like Macron or Maas second. This is not to say that the EU should not take advantage of the unique opportunity to take responsibility in Lebanon.
The call for a thorough engagement of a foreign power that went viral on Lebanese social media, after all, called for French action, not for European. But France is part of the EU and Macron one of the most passionate advocates of the Union on the highest political level. He knows that as much as other big players in Brussels do. It is thus about the balancing of interests.
Speaking of which, the EU should not abuse this window of opportunity to take inconsiderate action in Lebanon. Only those who approach their counterparts on an equal footing will eventually enjoy (mutual) respect. Concretely speaking, it is the EU’s moral and strategic duty to keep its promise of a long-term engagement.
Economic investment by European companies should go hand in hand with infant industry protection of Lebanese start-ups backed by the EU.
Such an approach must go far beyond generous remittances every now and then and should be grounded in civil society engagement. Economic investment by European companies should go hand in hand with infant industry protection of Lebanese start-ups backed by the EU. Student exchanges should go both ways and be connected to an actual incentive to stay in Lebanon after graduation. And both officials of EU members and the union itself should continue cultivating the European-Lebanese friendship that was praised so often in the days following the Beirut explosion.
Besides, an honest approach that seeks to help the people is the most European way to handle long term strategic interests which the EU should not be afraid of voicing either. It certainly was not for no reason that Josep Borrell, the esteemed High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, spoke with the Lebanese government instead of a rather unknown commissioner in charge of, say, neighborhood or international partnerships.
To make it abundantly clear, it is in the EU’s very interest not to let Lebanon down. Not only can Brussels hardly afford another failed state in its vicinity, let alone the one sheltering so many Syrian and Palestinian refugees. Also, the EU is well aware other global players (read: China) will not let situations like the Beirut blast’s chaotic aftermath go to waste.
Let us hope Brussels meets its responsibility. Only then it truly holds to say: Lebanon is not alone.