Friday

18th Sep 2020

Column

Lebanon is a new focal point

More than the tangible destruction, the explosion in the port of Beirut meant the ultimate destruction of hope for many civilians.

For weeks, residents of the Lebanese capital demonstrated against mismanagement and economic uncertainty.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • Lebanon, still an important transit zone between the Mediterranean and the Middle East, is becoming a new focal point in superpower politics

The explosion, which originated in a government depot, confirmed the catastrophic condition of the country.

However, the impact continues. Beirut was long the last piece of Europe in the Middle East, a free-spirited metropolis on the Eastern Mediterranean coast.

That position also takes a hit. We will not solve that with some European emergency aid.

For decades Lebanon has been balancing between East and West. The bourgeoisie in the coastal cities had an orientation towards Europe and the United States. Large parts of the hinterland surrendered to the influence of Iran and its local extension - Hezbollah.

I remember driving into the city of Tire, passing a series of banners of conservative Shia leaders and then spending the evening with ladies dancing and red wine, watching the surf.

Or how the wine châteaux of the Bekaa Valley wanted to conquer the European market in the best French style, while on a plot next door, opium was grown for the Hezbollah drug trade.

Europe has failed in the battle for influence. Or rather: Europe has given up Lebanon.

The country's economic and political challenges have been building up for a long time, sparking massive demonstrations against corruption and for democracy preservation and culminating in the unstable government's request for international financial assistance in May this year.

Recently, however, negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) came to a halt. European diplomats did not get much further than a few sympathetic remarks throughout that episode.

"Lebanon must help us," it said from Paris. Elsewhere, criticism was heard of the state's inability to implement reforms. "The Lebanese negotiate like carpet sellers."

However, that criticism is gratuitous. Lebanon has been a failing state for years, but we have done little to turn the tide. Here and there attempts were made to use military support to prevent Lebanon from falling completely under the control of Hezbollah and Iran.

European development aid fluctuated around €160m per year. And in fact, almost everyone knew that this was not a solution, but Europe hardly has the ambition to play a significant role in the Levant.

A century after Sykes-Picot, this is the swan song, with some flags and explanations, but little sense of responsibility.

Europe has just given up. This attitude reinforces the total desperation among the Western-minded part of the population. The demonstrations for transparent government didn't lead to anything.

The impact of the crisis is catastrophic, especially in the cities. City dwellers try to leave or survive thanks to money from relatives abroad. Others are resorting to some support from Hezbollah.

Economic sanctions have made Iran less generous, but Hezbollah continues to maintain a widespread patronage network.

The main short-term consequence is fragmentation and criminalisation. Shady businessmen are now completely taking over in the cities or in large neighbourhoods.

In exchange for loyalty, young men can get a job here and there. In the long term, it remains to be seen in which sphere of influence Lebanon ends up. Iran is trying to exploit the deadlock, but cannot alleviate its financial need.

Hezbollah is now increasingly looking to China.

The government is trying to attract Chinese investment and China itself sees an additional hub in the East Mediterranean, in addition to the bridgeheads it already has in Egypt and Greece.

That would be a geopolitical dike breach.

For millennia, Chinese dynasties tried to extend their authority over the Silk Road, sending delegations to the Mediterranean. But they always clashed with the powers of Persia and the Levant.

Today, Persia is more willing and the entire Levant is being recreated in a power vacuum. Lebanon, still an important transit zone between the Mediterranean and the Middle East, thus becomes a new focal point in superpower politics.

European emergency aid is important now. But more is needed in the long term.

Above all, Europe must decide for itself whether it wants to give up more ground, see another country collapse from instability, see a last free port in the Middle East disappear, give competitors a new base to the Mediterranean - its mythological cradle wants to give up.

After all, according to tradition, Europe was a Lebanese princess, chased by the Greek supreme god.

Author bio

Jonathan Holslag teaches international politics at the Free University of Brussels.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Feature

Lebanon crisis overshadows EU aid for Syrian refugees

Lebanon hosts over one million Syrian refugees, and has received some €1bn in EU funds. Caught in a geo-political tug of war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Lebanon's domestic politics have cast a longer shadow over its Syrian 'guests'.

Does Erdoğan's long arm now reach Belgian universities?

Leuven's Catholic University, one of Belgium's best, has decided to close one of its respected but controversial chairs. And many say that is not because of an academic failure or scandal, but a result of the Turkish government's relentless pressure.

Why is EU rewarding Israel for annexation?

This is a critical moment. The UAE-Israel agreement, welcomed by the European Union, represents a severe blow to the Arab Peace Initiative, writes the diplomatic affairs' adviser for Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

Feature

The Hagia Sophia and the global battle of symbols

The Turkish president's decision to restart Islamic worship services in Istanbul's Hagia Sophia last Friday is not innocent. So how should we react? By doing the opposite - and make Cordoba's famous Mosque/Cathedral in Cordoba a museum.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Council meets Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tichanovskaja
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region to invest DKK 250 million in green digitalised business sector
  3. UNESDAReducing packaging waste – a huge opportunity for circularity
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCOVID-19 halts the 72nd Session of the Nordic Council in Iceland
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersCivil society a key player in integration
  6. UNESDANext generation Europe should be green and circular

Latest News

  1. Commissioner: No one will like new EU migration pact
  2. Buying an EU passport 'no use for evading sanctions'
  3. MEPs call for first-ever EU law on Romani inclusion
  4. EU to help draft Libya's strategy on border security
  5. Spain to recognise Kosovo if it gets Serbia deal
  6. Ylva Johansson on Migration and Drama Queens
  7. Does Erdoğan's long arm now reach Belgian universities?
  8. Biden threatens UK trade deal over Brexit shambles

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNEW REPORT: Eight in ten people are concerned about climate change
  2. UNESDAHow reducing sugar and calories in soft drinks makes the healthier choice the easy choice
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersGreen energy to power Nordic start after Covid-19
  4. European Sustainable Energy WeekThis year’s EU Sustainable Energy Week (EUSEW) will be held digitally!
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic states are fighting to protect gender equality during corona crisis
  6. UNESDACircularity works, let’s all give it a chance

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us