EU Aid to Lebanon: Bribes for Bad Behavior

The manner in which Brussels has meted out €1billion to Lebanon smacks of opportunism and a reward for flouting reforms.
Benjamin Fève

May 16, 2024

Bad behaviour certainly has its rewards. That is, at least, if you are among Lebanon’s political elite, who secured €1 billion in financial aid from the European Union last week.

On May 2, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides announced the three-year assistance package at a joint press conference in Beirut with Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati.

Brussels framed it as a commitment to supporting Syrian refugees and “other vulnerable groups” in Lebanon, as well as an effort to curb irregular migration to Europe through strengthening Beirut’s border security forces.

For Lebanon’s kleptocratic political class, however, the aid was a message: Europe will not hold you accountable for driving the country into the ground through your venal abuse of power, and indeed Europe will bend to manipulation if you pull the right strings.

Remember, this is the same political class that drove the country into crippling financial collapse five years ago and continues to stall the reforms necessary for recovery to begin, letting the country slide further into the abyss. This is the same political class whose (at the very least) wanton recklessness led to the devastating 2020 Beirut port blast and who have actively blocked investigations to determine responsibility for this horrific national tragedy.

On top of these societal stressors, today there are also nearly 100,000 internally displaced people from the Israel-Hezbollah war on Lebanon’s southern border. Social tensions are flaring as well about the country’s roughly 1.5 million Syrian refugees – the largest per capita refugee population in the world.

The Syrian refugee population has, however, proved useful for the political leadership, both domestically and internationally. Senior officials from across the political spectrum have regularly scapegoated the Syrian population to deflect blame for their part in Lebanon’s collapse, helping to spur security forces’ widespread human rights violations against Syrian refugees.

The political class has also exploited the refugee presence to milk the international community for funding, with EU aid alone amounting to €3 billion since 2011.

"Upon closer inspection, it’s obvious that these funds are not a policy shift, but part of a previous pattern of allocations to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis at the regional level"

In recent months, Lebanese leaders have again ramped up their hostile rhetoric against Syrians further as leverage against the EU. In December 2023, Prime Minister Najib Mikati suggested facilitating migration out of Lebanon to Europe as a way to reduce the country’s refugee burden.

The killing of a Lebanese politician in early April, allegedly by a “Syrian gang”, then sent anti-Syrian rhetoric in Lebanon to a fevered pitch. In late April 2024, caretaker Minister of Displaced Issam Charafeddine capitalised on this sentiment, saying Lebanon should “widely open the seaports […] in order to put pressure on the European countries.”

Racism against Syrians in Lebanon lately has been matched, perhaps, only by European policymakers’ own raging xenophobia, with rising rightwing nationalism reshaping European foreign policy.

This is clear in the EU’s recent deals with MauritaniaTunisiaEgypt, and its security arrangement with Libya, all seeking to curb irregular migration to Europe.

While continuing to offer platitudes to humanist principles, all of these deals essentially pay off actors with long histories of human rights abuses to head off migrants attempting to reach European shores. Last week, it was Lebanon’s turn to join the payroll.

"Whatever the outcome, the recent EU financial support arrives with minimal oversight and, as such, is likely to perpetuate Lebanon’s dysfunctional governance rather than promote necessary reforms"

For years, European leaders have insisted that aid to Lebanon be contingent on reforms. In the aftermath of the 2020 Beirut port blast EU and Western leaders, most vocally, French President Emmanuel Macron, who upon landing in Beirut to much fanfare shortly after the blast, pledged that funds “will not fall into corrupt hands.”

Funny enough, by 2022 the EU inscribed its 2021-2027 Multiannual Indicative Program (MIP), a bilateral aid program for Lebanon, which said the support “should be conditional on satisfactory reform progress, primarily in the areas of macroeconomic and monetary policies, rule of law, anti-corruption, and the banking and electricity sectors.”

Furthermore, the MIP mandates that financial allocations for 2025-2027 must be “preceded by a review of this MIP’s implementation.”

This review did not happen, and by the EU’s admission, Lebanon has fallen far short of the needed reforms. The EU, however, has failed to impose consequences and its declarations then amount to little more than posturing, mirroring the 2021 EU sanctions program targeting Lebanon. As a tool meant to penalise Lebanese leaders impeding reforms, the sanctions program has been extended three times but remains unused.

Indeed, upon closer inspection, it’s obvious that these funds are not a policy shift, but part of a previous pattern of allocations to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis at the regional level.

The only ‘new’ elements are the rather uninspiring details of the allocation to Lebanon: around three-quarters of the funds will go to funding the UN-lead response to the refugee crisis over the next four years, something which has been going on since the war in Syria erupted in 2011.

The other quarter, which targets security sector support, is perhaps a little more novel. But such support, specifically for the Lebanese Armed Forces, has been going on for many years, supported by the EU and other Western donors.

It is in this context that von der Leyen’s trip should be seen, as a political PR stunt it is: a message to her centrist base in the EU which seeks to stave off challenges from the far right in Europe by being ‘tough on migration’, rather than any real commitment to support Lebanon or Syrian refugees for that matter.

In fact, recent efforts by a coalition of member states, including Austria, Greece, Italy, and Cyprus, have advocated for the creation of ‘safe zones’ in Syria, a strategy now supported at the highest levels of the EU.

The European Council meeting on April 17, 2024, specifically addressed Lebanon and the Syrian refugee crisis, with conclusions reaffirming the need to create “conditions for safe, voluntary, and dignified returns of Syrian refugees.” It is questionable, at best, whether any of this is rooted in reality, given the “grave human rights abuses and persecution” many returning Syrians have faced at the hands of their government, according to Human Rights Watch.

Whatever the outcome, the recent EU financial support arrives with minimal oversight and, as such, is likely to perpetuate Lebanon’s dysfunctional governance rather than promote necessary reforms.

By not enforcing stringent aid conditions or sanctions regimes, the EU is, in effect, empowering Lebanese leaders’ exploitative political strategies, which are likely to exacerbate the crises the EU aims to mitigate. In the end, the EU’s funding of bad behaviour is akin to a policy of ‘just carrots and no sticks,’ one where Lebanon’s venal leaders get the carrots, and everyone else gets the stick.

Benjamin Fève is a Research Analyst at Triangle and a writer at Badil

This article was originally published in English in The New Arab.