EU preparing to impose sanctions on govt formation obstructers in Lebanon

The EU foreign ministers discussed, among other topics, the deepening economic and political crises in Lebanon which has been left without a fully empowered government for more than eight months

  
European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell speaks at a news conference after an EU Foreign Ministers meeting in Brussels, Belgium February 22, 2021.

European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell speaks at a news conference after an EU Foreign Ministers meeting in Brussels, Belgium February 22, 2021.

REUTERS/Johanna Geron/Pool

BEIRUT: Expressing its concern over the monthslong political stalemate in Lebanon and the failure of its leaders to agree on the formation of a new government, the European Union is preparing to impose sanctions on politicians blamed for obstructing the formation, a senior EU official said.

The announcement by EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell, which came after a meeting of the EU foreign ministers in Brussels Monday, underlined determination by France and its European partners to forge ahead with “punitive measures” against Lebanese politicians implicated in corruption and accused of blocking the formation of a new government to implement reforms and rescue the country from all-out economic collapse.

The EU foreign ministers discussed, among other topics, the deepening economic and political crises in Lebanon which has been left without a fully empowered government for more than eight months since the caretaker Cabinet of Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned on Aug. 10 in the aftermath of the deadly Beirut Port explosion.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian briefed his EU counterparts on the results of his two-day visit to Beirut last week which did not make any progress in the Cabinet formation crisis because his talks with Lebanese leaders centered more on the ruling political elite that failed to honor its pledges on reforms.

Before leaving Beirut, Le Drian threatened obstructers of the Cabinet formation with more sanctions, and called for saving Lebanon from “collective suicide” organized by the country’s ruling political class.

“The European Union expressed its resentment over the political deadlock in Lebanon and has begun preparations to impose sanctions on politicians it considers them responsible for obstruction,” Borrell said in a statement after the Brussels meeting.

“We are working to adopt the stick-and-carrot policy. All options are possible in order to exert pressure on the political class that is preventing a solution to the impasse,” he said, adding that Le Drian briefed the EU ministers on the situation in Lebanon.

A European diplomat said that France was very clear on what should be done to cope with the crisis in Lebanon.

“All options have been proposed and if things proceed in a good manner, the European Union is ready to help Lebanon,” the diplomat said in remarks published Tuesday. “But at present, the deadlock continues and the European Union is discussing exerting individual pressure on politicians who are obstructing the formation of the Cabinet and the adoption of reforms,” he added.

Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri and Future Movement officials have repeatedly accused President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law, MP Gebran Bassil, head of the Free Patriotic Movement, of blocking the government formation with their insistence on gaining a blocking one-third [veto power], something that the premier-designate has vowed not to grant to any side.

Le Drian, whose country has spearheaded international efforts to assist Lebanon’s crumbling economy, promised to step up pressure on those blocking the government formation.

“We have decided to increase pressures on obstructers and we cannot remain with hands folded in the face of what is happening. We have begun taking steps to prevent obstructing politicians and those implicated in corruption from entering French territories,” Le Drian said at the end of his visit to Beirut last Friday. “This is only the beginning.”

France announced late last month it had started imposing entry restrictions on certain figures for their role in the political crisis and in corruption. Le Drian refused to provide names but warned that the sanctions could be made tougher and extended to other politicians.

The planned EU sanctions come as the Cabinet formation crisis has entered its ninth month with no solution in sight and the country is wrestling with multiple crises, including an unprecedented financial downturn that is threatening the Lebanese with poverty and hunger. They also come amid a new war of words between the Free Patriotic Movement and the Future Movement, further compounding the already-stalled Cabinet formation process.

Dimming hopes for a solution to the crisis is that Aoun and Hariri, who are constitutionally mainly responsible for the Cabinet formation, have not been on speaking terms since their last meeting at Baabda Palace on March 22 that failed to resolve their differences over the size and makeup of the government. The two leaders have refused to budge on their conflicting positions on the Cabinet formation. They remain at odds over the distribution of key ministerial seats, namely the Justice and Interior ministries, and the naming of Christian ministers.

The failure of Le Drian’s mission in Beirut has raised fears that Hariri might step down in protest at the continued obstruction of his attempts to form a government of nonpartisan specialists to deliver reforms in line with the French initiative. Future Movement MP Mohammad Hajjar told The Daily Star Monday that quitting was one of Hariri’s options.

But former Premier Najib Mikati Tuesday warned Hariri against abandoning his efforts to form a new government, saying this would amount to “political suicide.”

Mikati, along with former Premiers Fouad Siniora and Tammam Salam, have been harsh critics of Aoun’s performance, accusing him of violating constitutional rules in the Cabinet formation process. The three ex-premiers have supported Hariri in the Cabinet standoff.

“The policy of stubbornness and arrogance is no longer useful in dealing with the Cabinet file after the Lebanese situation has entered the stage of economic, financial and social chaos. Halting the total collapse is required through the quick formation of a government to launch the required remedies in agreement with the concerned international organizations and with the support of Lebanon’s friends and brothers,” Mikati told visitors at his residence in the northern city of Tripoli.

“There is someone who wants to take control of everything in power. Whenever you make concessions to him, he asked for more,” he said, in an implicit allusion to Bassil. Referring to the possibility of Hariri stepping aside, Mikati said: “Stepping down from forming the government today amounts to political suicide.”

He underlined the need for “changing the mentality of monopoly and elimination prevailing within the [Aoun] mandate’s team in order to quickly tackle many issues with the required firmness so that everyone can join in unity and solidarity the rescue process.”

Referring to the 1989 Taif Accord that ended the 1975-90 Civil War and stipulated equal power sharing between Muslims and Christians, Mikati said: “The Taif Accord is still the best for Lebanon and for its political and sectarian setup, but we must properly implement it and complete [implementing all its provisions].”

In addition to the worst economic crisis since the Civil War and the crashing Lebanese pound that has already lost more than 90 percent of its value since 2019, the Lebanese are bracing for further misery as the caretaker government plans to remove subsidies on essential items, such as fuel, wheat and medicine.

Comments that subsidies on these items would be removed by the end of May have triggered panic buying at supermarkets, sending prices of meat and chicken skyrocketing. Amid fuel shortages across the country, cars Tuesday for the third consecutive day lined up outside gas stations.

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