BEIRUT: The new Lebanese Cabinet is proof that the country’s factions can still reach a political agreement, the European Union’s envoy to Lebanon said, as she expressed continued backing for the Army and hopes of “de-escalation” in the security crisis that has gripped the country.
In an interview with The Daily Star, Angelina Eichhorst discussed the recent formation of the Cabinet, the EU’s backing for the Lebanese Army, the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis, the start of trial at the STL and the EU’s blacklisting of Hezbollah’s military wing.
The creation of the Cabinet showed that Prime Minister Tammam Salam can “stick to his principles,” the EU envoy said.
“He told us [from] the first day that he wants to work on a rotational basis and he wants to get a consensual government as much as possible,” she said. “You can see that there is a reasonable, good balance of the different parties being represented according to the constitutional requirements.”
Salam announced a government of “national interest” Saturday that included both the March 8 and 14 political blocs.
Eichhorst said she spoke with Salam Saturday shortly after his announcement, and was working to arrange a first meeting with EU ambassadors to learn about his Cabinet’s priorities.
The formation of a consensual Cabinet will give security agencies greater latitude in their operations, with the knowledge that “there is a political understanding for what they are doing,” she said.
She praised the Cabinet formation as a sign that the Lebanese can still reach political agreement, adding that the EU would continue its cooperation with the country.
“It’s a good development of showing that there is still that ability in Lebanon to come to a political agreement,” she said. “This is very good and we welcome that.”
On upcoming presidential polls, Eichhorst said it was important that they happen on time.
“Upholding the constitution is very important,” she said. “That’s the basis for a state, a functioning state.”
“We hope that the constitutional deadlines of electing the president, but also [for] preparing the electoral law and preparing for the elections [are met],” she said.
Eichhorst reiterated the EU’s support for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the court prosecuting those responsible for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.
She said the EU’s backing was part of a global drive to fight impunity.
“There are many people who have been killed since, and even before, many cases unresolved, and many cases not brought to court,” she said. “And that in itself is a notion we refute.”
But she said the tribunal must also be efficient and achieve results in a timely fashion.
“For us what is important is that it is up and running, that it is transparent, following the judicial rules, but it has to be efficient also,” Eichhorst said. “It is also a very costly operation, [so] it is important that you keep the efficiency.”
Eichhorst said it was important for Lebanon to continue its efforts to arrest the suspects in the case, and said she had brought up the issue in meetings with Hezbollah officials.
The STL has indicted five members of Hezbollah in connection with the bombing. The party has refused to hand them over.
She said the EU would also continue to back the tribunal’s efforts to reach out to the public, and said it signified a demand for justice among the public in the Arab world.
“Such a mechanism has not existed before in the whole region, and the key questions today in the region are particularly related to justice, whether it’s Lebanon, Syria, Egypt [or] Tunisia,” she said.
She also addressed the spiraling refugee crisis and Lebanese demands for greater international assistance.
There are nearly 930,000 registered refugees who fled the violence in Syria since the start of the crisis there. Lebanese officials repeatedly said the international community needs to do more to help Lebanon deal with the crisis.
Eichhorst said that Lebanon’s ability to cater to Syrian refugees is “remarkable,” but that EU member states have dug “deep into their pockets” to help provide for the refugees.
“We understand that the government of Lebanon until today, and we expect the new government to constantly ask for international support, and they are right to do that,” she said.
“The world should not forget what is going on here.”
The EU has so far provided 2.4 billion euros to countries in the region, including 665 million euros to Lebanon alone, to help handle the cost of refugees.
Roughly half of that goes to the U.N. organizations.
The other half is channeled through the Lebanese government.
Eichhorst said that refugee camps would be the most efficient solution to the influx, but that she understood the political challenge to building camps.
“It was understood very early on that politically this is a very difficult question for Lebanon, and I don’t think that has changed,” she said. “It’s an efficiency argument. It’s doing the utmost with the least resources, and doing more with less. So then you need camps.”
She called on all external parties to refrain from interfering in Syria.
“Any call for any factions or parties to withdraw, whether it is Hezbollah or others, is a very legitimate call,” she said, adding that intervention in the war contravened international law and sovereignty principles.
Eichhorst said that adherence to the policy of disassociation and the Baabda Declaration was the only way to get out of the Syrian crisis “sound and sane.”
She was referring to agreements entered into by Lebanese factions that stress the need to remain neutral toward the crisis in Syria.
On rising extremism in Lebanon, Eichhorst said the EU sought to provide both “soft” assistance to address social issues like lack of education and jobs, combined with more “hard” power by furnishing aid to the security services and the Lebanese Army.
Lebanon has been hit by a spate of suicide bombings linked to the crisis in Syria in recent months.
Eichhorst said that EU states as a whole now have consensus on supporting the Army. That framework will likely encourage European member states to provide direct support to the military.
“Lebanon deserves a strong army,” she said.
Eichhorst also said the recent blacklisting of Hezbollah’s military wing has not substantially affected the relationship with the party’s “political elements.”
“You have to ask the other side but I don’t think our relationship as such, the EU as a partner for Lebanon, has on the overall level been affected,” Eichhorst said. “We have a strong, steady relationship. Our dialogue continues with the members of the party, and that also goes for the member states.”
“I could say I don’t really see a substantial change,” she said.
The EU added Hezbollah’s “military wing” to a list of terrorist organizations last year, after Bulgarian authorities accused party members of complicity in a bombing targeting Israeli tourists in the city of Burgas.
Eichhorst said her priority was to ensure that dialogue with the party’s political wing would continue, and that financial cooperation with Lebanon as a whole would not cease in the wake of the decision.
She defended the EU’s decision.
“Hezbollah has been put on this list for a very clear reason,” Eichhorst said. “The reason is that elements in the party have been accused of being involved in an attack on European soil.”
“It is in that framework that you must see that decision,” Eichhorst added. “The European Union does not accept that, full stop.”