What Does The EU Have To Do With Lebanon?

What Does The EU Have To Do With Lebanon?
A Lebanese Market
Source: Traveller’s Archive

On August 10, 2020, at the International Conference on Assistance and Support to Lebanon, severely hit by the consequence of a blast in its capital Beirut, the European Union agreed to €30 million in funding, added to the €33 million funding already promised by the Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen in a phone call with the Lebanese President Micheal Aoun.

Yet, the fact that the European Union is proud to share that monetary aid has not been the only act of European solidarity towards the Lebanese people; it was involved in tangible operations straight after the blast, like the activation of the Copernicus Satellite to assess the damages or the on-site deployment of rescue, chemical and medical experts through the European Civil Protection Mechanism.

The European International Police Organization, known as INTERPOL, on the request of Lebanese authorities has also deployed one of its “Incident Response Teams” (IRT) to assist not only emergency response, but also investigations on the perpetrators of the disastrous explosion.

The disastrous blast, however, was not the event that marked the beginning of EU-Lebanon relations. It is the prompt continuation of a partnership started in 2002, when the EU-Lebanon Association Agreement was signed. Although enforced only in 2006, when all European member states ratified it, such an accord is not only the legal base for the EU-Lebanon partnership, but it also represents a formal start for Lebanon’s transition to free trade. Since then, the EU has become Lebanon’s main trade partner, with exports to Lebanon estimated to be €7,2 billion in 2017 and imports from Lebanon amounting to  €0,4 billion. The disparity in Lebanese trade balance with the EU is clear, and it may arise doubts on whether such a partnership is really beneficial for Lebanon, which has only slightly improved its economic vulnerability throughout the years.

What Does The EU Have To Do With Lebanon?
Aftermath of the Beirut blast in Lebanon
Source: Hussein Malla/ Associated Press

But Lebanon’s stance in trade might be traced back to Lebanese history as a “Merchant Republic,” thus with very low industrial investment and development. The EU has attempted to provide support to Lebanon in this aspect as well. In 2016, the EU agreed to finance the fostering of Lebanon’s entrepreneurial development. The EU, in fact, established a €150 million fund over three years at the CEDRE Conference (Conférence économique pour le développement du Liban par les réformes et avec les entreprises) with the purpose of bringing reforms to Lebanon and revitalising the Lebanese economy.

EU-Lebanon partnership is also strengthened and financially supported through the European Neighbourhood Instrument, that, according to EU sources, focuses on three main areas of development and improvement:

  • “Promoting growth and job creation,
  • Fostering local governance and socio-economic development and
  • Promoting the Rule of Law, enhancing security.”

More broadly, the EU has focused on the planning and implementation of projects of economic reformation, security and migration. Economic reformation is to be based on the ‘green economy’ at municipal level, to upgrade Lebanese infrastructure for water supply, sanitation and waste disposal. As for security, the EU supports a more effective cooperation between the military and civil society and stronger border control operations. Finally, the EU aims to collaborate with Lebanon to control regular and irregular migration paths, especially in regard to the migration of Syrian refugees.

An interesting 2018 report by Karina Goulordava for the Italian international relations think-tank Istituto Affari Internazionali, illustrates the perception of the Lebanese population to EU presence and help in their country. The general feeling does not attribute the EU projects in Lebanon to failure, such as in improving the status quo nor a worse situation. In fact, the Lebanese people believe that the EU plays a key role in collaborating with grassroots actors and in illustrating civil society’s concerns to the central government in order to ensure social, political and economic development of the country.

People’s perception is surely a great indicator to assess EU action in Lebanon. At the moment, the EU finds itself in good stead, both to listen to the Lebanese people, and to cooperate with Lebanese authorities. The Beirut blast is a challenge for the EU’s role in Lebanon, because the European Union will have to demonstrate that, even in an emergency and crisis situation, it maintains its promises and values to protect and strengthen its partnership with non-EU States.

  • Did the already in motion EU-Lebanon partnership facilitate EU intervention and aid in the aftermath of the Beirut blast?
  • How important is it for both the EU and Lebanon that the Lebanese people do not perceive the EU as a “bad actor” in their country?
  • Are funding and EU-sponsored projects enough to be effective in Lebanon?

Suggested Further Reading

EU Neighbours, European Commission pledges additional €30 million in immediate support for Lebanon

European Commission, Lebanon

INTERPOL, INTERPOL deploys response team to site of Beirut explosion

Goulordava, Karina (2018). Lebanon-EU Relations and Ways Forward: Qualitative Research Findings with Key Stakeholders in Lebanon

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