image Photo: Reuters

EU: power struggle causing Lebanon crisis

A battle between Lebanese leaders to secure power is at the heart of its government crisis.

This, according to the High Representative of the European Union Josep Borrell yesterday, as he called on Lebanon’s official to put the country’s interests ahead of their feud by proceeding to form a ruling cabinet, or risk a total financial crash and sanctions.

This is the frank message the EU foreign policy chief said he delivered to Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister-Designate Saad al-Hariri and House Speaker Nabih Berri – while warning that some leaders could be slapped with international punitive economic measures if they continued to block steps to form a new government and implement urgently-required reforms.

Lebanon is in the throes of its worst crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war on the brink of total financial collapse rooted in decades of corruption and debt. There has been an outpouring of public unrest and street protest over the dire economic decline and political instability since October 2019.

The Republic’s political and economic crisis has been severely impacted by the months-long deadlock between Hariri and Aoun over the formation of a new government. The national currency has lost 90% of its value amid raging inflation, while more than half the population is impoverished and struggling to cope with power blackouts and shortages of fuel and food.

“The country is in big financial trouble and in order to solve the economic crisis they need a government,” he said. “A ship in the middle of a storm needs a captain, needs a crew for the system to work … If not the ship will sink.”

Borrell’s statement mirrored that same analogy used by Speaker Berri himself last March.

“The whole country is in danger, the whole country is the Titanic,” he said, stressing that, “It’s time we all wake up – because in the end, if the ship sinks, there’ll be no one left.”

Outgoing Prime Minister Hassan Diab had presented a sound financial reform plan that was blocked by politicians, Borrell pointed out, saying that a new technical government must act with real authority to avoid such an impasse.

Failure to act would drive down foreign reserves and leave Lebanon without foreign exchange to pay for basic goods or to prevent its medical facilities from running short of supplies, warned the EU’s top diplomat, while stating that badly-needed foreign aid will not be forthcoming unless a responsible government is in place to engage with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and enact major policy changes to eliminate deep corruption and financial mismanagement.

Despite these serious ramifications, none of the leaders with whom he met were optimistic at making progress, Borrell revealed. Just before leaving Beirut, Borrell characterized relations between Lebanese leaders as marked by “strong mistrust.”

“This country has a clear problem with its governance system,” he said of the Republic’s observance of confessionalism, in which political and institutional power is assigned according to religion. He added that his talks exposed deep divisions among Lebanon‘s sectarian Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim, Christian and Druze communities and the way authority is shared.

France has been leading the call for the EU to impose sanctions to pressure politicians to end the deadlock.

An EU diplomatic note seen by Reuters showed criteria for imposing possible sanctions were likely to be corruption, obstructing efforts to form a government, financial mishandling and human rights abuses.

While the 27-member bloc has yet to reach consensus on its approach, France said it has already restricted entry to some Beirut officials it holds responsible for blocking efforts to tackle the crisis. Even though Paris held back from naming them, French President Emmanuel Macron has previously publicly called out the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group for obstructing reform.

“The sanctions are a possibility that is going to be considered, and we would like very much not to use. But we cannot stay like this,” said Borrell, who reports back to EU foreign ministers today.