SOS BEIRUT: What is the EU doing to support Lebanon

by André Francischetti Moreno

Lebanon, a country of seven thousand years whose capital was destroyed and rebuilt seven times. On August 4, a mega blast devastated Beirut once more, causing at least 220 deaths, 7,000 injuries, billions of dollars in property damage (including hospitals), and leaving 300,000 people homeless. The sequence of two explosions that destroyed half of the city was probably caused by the combustion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate – equivalent to around 1.2 kilotons of TNT– which were confiscated by the Lebanese government from an abandoned ship and remained stored at city port for six years. The disaster could not have happened at a worst time, while Lebanon faces one of the deepest economic crises in its history. All this is aggravated by the needed restrictions to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, and by a political crisis which made the Lebanese PM Hassan Diab (deemed by many as a Hezbollah’s puppet) resign only one week after the explosion. The European Union and international community already mobilized resources to help with the reconstruction of Beirut, to rescue the Lebanese economy and avoid the country to plunge into a deeper political crisis.  

Since October 2019, the Lebanese pound lost eighty percent of its value, 25% of its population is unemployed, and according to the World Bank, about half of the Lebanese people live below the poverty line. The causes of such an economic crisis lay on years of patronage fueled by a sectarian government, systematic corruption, and government mismanagement. Today, Lebanon is the third most indebted country in the world and struggles to negotiate a bailout with the International Monetary Fund, which request deep reforms mainly in the basic services area. Highly dependent on imports, 90% of all grains come from abroad to the port of Beirut, whose destruction worsened a widespread food crisis. The closer ports in the region are in Israel, which has troubled relations with Lebanon, and Syria, which is at war since 2011. Furthermore, on the Transparency International’s 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index, Lebanon ranked 137th out of 180 countries (180 being the worst). After the mega blast, popular riots took to the streets of Beirut accusing the government of negligence when dealing with the catastrophe, calling for its resignation and demanding a massive political reform.

Following the devastating explosions, the European Union has activated all its emergency mechanisms, mobilizing €33 million to respond to urgent assistance needs in Lebanon and pledging an additional €30 million in aid. The EU deployed approximately 300 highly trained experts in search and rescue, chemical assessment, and medical teams. Not only that, but chemical protection suits and medical supplies were also sent to Beirut. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that the bloc was ready to aid Lebanon with preferential trade and customs backing, as its Central Bank faces financial meltdown and has limited capacity to cope with the impact of the explosion. Additionally, French President Emmanuel Macron decided to take the lead to coordinate international assistance and sent emergency aid to the former French protectorate. On August 9, Macron coordinated an international donors conference, which counted with world leaders such as US President Donald Trump, and claimed for a quick joint action to support the Lebanese people as well an international pressure for a radical reform of the Lebanese political class. Other European nations that are making massive contributions are Germany and Britain.

The High Representative of the European Union Josep Borrell stated that the EU attaches great value to the unity and stability of Lebanon which are key both for the country and the region. In fact, Lebanon is unique as it is the sole country in the Middle East whose presidency is always held by a Christian. Furthermore, it shelters the highest number of refugees per capita in the world, namely one out of six people is a foreigner in Lebanon, 98% of which come from Syria. 

Given this scenario, more protests are predicted to happen with further claims regarding the Lebanese political system, international pressure for a supra party national unity government will rise, Lebanon shall intensify the investigation of the causes of the mega blast, and a new government should be formed (although incumbent politicians are charged with indicating the new prime minister). Raoul Nehme, the Lebanese Minister of Economy and Trade, stated that it will be painful and long, but Lebanon will get out of this crisis. 

Photo by Marten Bjork on Unsplash

References

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