The European Union has joined other members of the international community in offering assistance to Lebanon following Tuesday’s enormous explosion in Beirut, which killed at least 137 people and injured thousands more. With hundreds of thousands now homeless and the reconstruction effort expected to cost billions, the disaster has exacerbated already-severe economic turmoil for an unstable government in dire need of foreign financial support. Lebanon’s latest tragedy brings to the fore another crisis in the EU’s neighbourhood, and presents a complex strategic challenge for Europe’s leaders.
In the immediate aftermath, both European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel expressed their condolences while offering the EU’s assistance. President Michel promised “in the spirit of solidarity we will do all we can to help the Lebanese people overcome this tragedy.” European Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič, who will oversee the EU’s response to the crisis, also spoke of Europe’s shared “shock and sadness” following the disaster.
At the request of the Lebanese authorities, the EU Civil Protection Mechanism has since been activated, enabling the rapid deployment of a hundred firefighters, search dogs, vehicles and rescue equipment. A number of EU Member States, including France, Germany and the Netherlands, have confirmed their participation. A military vessel for medical evacuation will also be deployed.
The European Commission subsequently announced it would mobilise over €33 million for further emergency assistance, medical support and equipment. President von der Leyen also announced the Commission was exploring “further preferential trade and customs facilitation” to bring Lebanon back from the brink of economic meltdown.
On Thursday, just two days after the explosion, French President Emmanuel Macron stole the spotlight as the first foreign leader to visit Beirut, promising a “new political pact” for Lebanon by the autumn. Macron met with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Hassan Diab and other actors from different factions in the hope of orchestrating political reconciliation.
Positioning himself as a representative of both France and Europe, the French President has taken early leadership of international efforts to push Lebanon towards much-needed structural reform. Combined efforts under the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism may be overshadowed by the bilateral initiative of individual Member States.
Amidst the soul-searching of the coming days, questions will arise over how European leaders have tolerated the development of such an unstable situation in Europe’s neighbourhood, in a country with which the EU shares an Association Agreement. EU leaders have remained on the sidelines during months of anti-government protests, but a possible humanitarian crisis may bring the crisis closer to home.
Meanwhile, protesters clashed with security forces in anti-government demonstrations on Thursday night, accusing the authorities of corruption and criminal negligence of the dangerous reserve of ammonium nitrate that triggered the explosion. The spectre of protracted civil unrest in the region, almost a decade on from the Arab Spring, will serve as another reminder of the shortcomings of the European Neighbourhood Policy and the limits of the EU’s leverage to promote good governance.