Tripping and Falling: France’s Rush to Beirut

The Blast

On the 4th of August Lebanon and the Levant were shocked by a blast of dreadful proportions. Beirut fell victim to one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, as 2,700 tonnes of unattended ammonium nitrate caught fire leaving more than 180 dead and nearly 7,000 injured. The blast is also estimated to have caused more than $15 billion in damages and has left around 300,000 people homeless.

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The shockwaves of the blast circulated through the capital, rousing anger and discontent towards the governing bodies of the Mediterranean country. Lebanon finds itself in a precarious situation, to say the least, as prior to the blast the country was simultaneously mired by a corrupt elite, struggling with a collapsed economy and battling a global pandemic. The Lebanese people erupted onto the streets in the weeks following the blast, demanding government accountability and reform. Moreover, it was these same Lebanese people, armed with brooms and hope, that descended onto the blast site days before the arrival of any official response team from government or municipal authorities. The international community responded immediately with promises of aid and assistance and, by the end of August, the EU had sent two air bridge flights, delivering up to 29 tonnes of essential humanitarian supplies, as well as €64 million in emergency funding.

Macron’s race to Beirut

The French president wasted no time in shuffling himself over to Beirut, appearing at the blast site two days after the explosion surrounded by cameras and press. The signal he sent was clear: France is here to help. Three days later, on August 9th, Emmanuel Macron organised an international conference with donors pledging a total of €250 million in aid, as well as shipments of food, medicine and essential equipment. France’s long arm of financial tutelage began cracking the whip, as Macron insisted that, in order to unlock this aid by the end of the month, Lebanon would have to reset its political system. This resulted in a rushed swearing in of Mustapha Adib, formerly an ambassador to Germany, as Lebanon’s new prime minister on the 31st of August, one day before Macron’s return to the country. Macron returned with a simple message to Adib, either follow through with reforms and receive the benefits of international aid and donors, or don’t and see these donors turn their backs on Lebanon.

The newly-promoted diplomat agreed, on September 1st, to a French timetable which envisioned the formation of a new government and an accelerated investigation into the explosion on August 4th. Adib was unable to stay true to his commitments to Macron and form a new government by September 15th. Since the end of the Lebanese Civil War in the 1990s, Lebanon’s government has been the battleground for sectarian politics. This has resulted in sects creating their own personal fiefdoms around government ministries and top government positions, which are assigned according to religious loyalties. This division of power has, in the past weeks, proven to be particularly resistant to change, undermining relentless attempts to reform the system. More importantly, the Lebanese people were not confident in their new prime minister, claiming that Adib is part of the same political, elitist class responsible for the country’s current misfortune.

Macron’s trust in Adib, to form a new government and push the country forward, proved to be misplaced. This became clear the moment Adib resigned, following a grinding attrition against the political elite in his country, who remain entrenched in their established roles. With Macron’s horse out of the race, it appears that French foreign policy efforts in Lebanon have been dealt a stinging blow. Worse yet is the situation in Lebanon, as their president, just days before Adib’s resignation, heralded a dreary prognosis claiming the country would go to “hell” if a new government would not form soon. With the country now on the precipice of failure, politicians and civilians alike have lost trust in the government and in its ability to restore the Mediterranean state to even a semblance of stability.

Calculated Risk or Rushed disaster?

France’s gamble to support change in Lebanese politics has fallen disastrously short. The risky manoeuvre intended to strengthen France’s foreign policy and show it off to the international community. France, as ever, was trying to be both European and French. In the aftermath of the blast, Macron rushed to visit the distraught city before any other world leader, including Charles Michel, President of the European Council, who arrived two days later. The French president has often remarked on the importance of a stronger EU presence in the Mediterranean, yet he charges ahead leaving the EU behind. Due to Macron’s brazen action, the EU’s approach to Lebanon was forced to fall in line with Paris’, to avoid the risk of appearing divided. Macron’s support for Adib, for example, ran contrary to EU public statements as the EU Commissioner for Crisis Management declared the necessity of “a credible government that enjoys the confidence of the Lebanese people”.

Although incoherent and brash in his actions, Macron’s Beirut fumble sheds light on an important aspect of European foreign policy in Lebanon and the Middle East. The EU should not content itself with simply throwing aid and money at the problem. The EU has clearly learned nothing from the last time this was the attempted solution, when the result was scandal, corruption and piles of rubbish. The 2017 EU-led waste management system for Lebanon revealed itself to be a monetary lifeline for many politicians and businessmen who syphoned off essential funds needed to clear the streets of mountains of trash. In light of the failed past attempts, the EU needs to focus on collaborating with civil society in order to rebuild Lebanon from the ground up. Chief amongst these is a maverick group of lawyers, called United for Lebanon, spearheading a campaign to expose corruption and bring irresponsible politicians to court. France’s agile manoeuvring, although fraught with issues, showed the EU that European countries can do more than just send funds and aid. EU Member States need to, collectively, support Lebanese civil society and help form a government that the people in the Mediterranean country can get behind.

If not Brussels, then who?

Macron’s race to Beirut was not against EU leaders. It was, however, challenging the foreign powers that lick their lips at the opportunity of extending their spheres of influence in the Middle East, now that the United States has become uncharacteristically disinterested. Both Turkey and China have stepped forward, appearing as well-intentioned benefactors, offering aid services and sustaining the country with emergency funds. Their intentions, however, are far from humanitarian, as both Ankara and Beijing hope to expand their control of the heavily sought after Mediterranean coastline. For Erdogan, the Lebanese crisis provides an opportunity to gain the upper hand and an ally in a now prolonged conflict over natural gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean. Lebanese ports could help Turkish ships resupply and restock allowing the Turkish navy to extend its presence in the region. Moreover, if push comes to shove, a Turkish leaning Lebanon may even militarily support Ankara’s operations in the region.

The EU needs to take the Lebanese crisis seriously and to do so it needs to adopt a new view of Mediterranean neighbourhood policy. The existent views of the region as one that pertains only to issues of security and migration have dragged the Union down and blinded it to the economic and strategic importance of the region. 10% of global GDP passes through the region and there is little national or regional impact, as only 25% of trade is intra-regional. Helping develop intra-regional trade would strengthen an economic block near the EU and provide an additional market for European products as well as extend Brussels’ influence to the Eastern Mediterranean, discouraging Erdogan’s brazen actions in the region. To achieve this, however, the EU cannot allow Macron to foolishly crown himself D'artagnan and rush into the fray without the support of the other musketeers. Together they must form and stick to a coherent plan that respects and sustains the needs of the Lebanese people first and foremost.