BEIRUT: During his first foreign trip to France this week as Lebanon's prime minister, Najib Mikati will seek to drum up French and international support to help Lebanon out of its crippling economic and financial crisis, a political source said Wednesday.
Despite France’s crisis with the United States over a submarine deal with Australia that Paris described as “a stab in the back,” French President Emmanuel Macron found time to invite Mikati for talks over a business lunch at the Elysee Palace Friday.
Macron’s gesture underlined France’s determination to resolve Lebanon’s multiple crises and pull its former colony out of an unprecedented economic meltdown that has propelled more than 70 percent of the country’s 6 million population into poverty amid a crashing currency that has lost more than 90 percent of its value since late 2019.
“Besides thanking Macron for his role in helping in the formation of the new government and in organizing donor conferences for Lebanon since last year’s Beirut Port explosion, Prime Minister Mikati will seek to rally French and international support to help Lebanon overcome its dire economic and financial crisis,” a political source told The Daily Star.
Describing Mikati’s Paris visit as “very important,” the source said the prime minister’s meeting with Macron was also aimed at reviving the implementation of the CEDRE conference’s decisions that would enable Lebanon to obtain some of the $11 billion in grants and soft loans promised by donors during the conference hosted by France in 2018.
Mikati wants the CEDRE aid to go alongside the expected negotiations between Lebanon and the International Monetary Fund on a bailout package. The IMF was previously reported to be ready to grant Lebanon loans worth billions of dollars to implement some vital development and infrastructure projects if agreement was reached with Lebanese authorities on implementing reforms decided at the CEDRE conference and which were contained in the French initiative.
The source said Macron was expected to urge Mikati to implement the required reforms in the shortest possible time and revive negotiations with the IMF in order to make it easy for Lebanon to obtain international assistance.
A statement by his media office said Mikati will visit Paris Thursday and will meet with Macron for talks at the Elysee Palace the next day after the formation of a new government in Lebanon.
Mikati knows that France, which has emerged as the main power broker in Lebanon since last year’s deadly Beirut Port explosion and which had played a key role in facilitating the formation of the government, is the main gateway to the international community.
On the eve of his Paris visit, Mikati had met separately at the Grand Serail with French Ambassador to Lebanon Anne Grillo and US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea, whose countries have been coordinating efforts to defuse Lebanon’s economic crisis, exacerbated by severe fuel, medicine and food shortages, in addition to chronic power cuts.
Both the US and France have welcomed the formation of a new government in Lebanon, but urged it to quickly undertake essential reforms in order for the international community to come forth with its promised aid to the cash-strapped country. The European Union has also urged Lebanon's new government to move quickly to adopt reforms that would pave the way for a deal with the IMF halt the country's economic collapse.
Previous governments, riven by political rifts, had failed to implement reforms recommended by the CEDRE conference designed to rally financial support for Lebanon.
The reforms are deemed essential to unlocking over $11 billion in grants and soft loans pledged by international donors at the CEDRE conference to stimulate the stagnant economy and finance key infrastructure projects that the Lebanese government outlined in its Capital Investment Program.
In a bid to reduce budget deficit, estimated at $5 billion annually, and soaring public debt, estimated at $90 billion, previous governments have promised to fight corruption in the public administration, curb the waste of public funds, overhaul the frail electricity sector, and slash deficit in the state-run Electricite du Liban, which is costing around $2 billion in annual subsidies.
The Paris visit comes a few days after Mikati’s Cabinet of 24 specialists gained a confidence vote from Parliament, giving ministers a shot in the arm to begin tackling urgent problems facing the crises-hit country.
In a speech during a Parliament session Monday night to debate the government’s policy statement ahead of the confidence vote, Mikati disclosed that the government has begun negotiations with the IMF on a bailout package to rescue the debt-ridden nation from its worst economic meltdown in history.
Mikait, backed by France and some regional powers, in addition to the country’s major parliamentary blocs, including Hezbollah, unveiled a new Cabinet of 24 specialists on Sept. 10, ending 13 months of political stalemate that exacerbated the economic depression, described by the World Bank as one of the world’s worst since the 1850s, posing the gravest threat to the country’s stability since the 1975-90 Civil War. He reiterated his commitment to implement reform measures contained in the government’s policy statement and also in the French initiative designed to steer Lebanon out of its economic crunch.
Meanwhile, the International Support Group for Lebanon Wednesday welcomed the formation of a new government in Lebanon and of Parliament’s vote of confidence in the government and its program. The group urged Lebanese leaders to embark on reforms and prepare for elections to take place on time next year.
“In line with key provisions of the approved ministerial statement, the ISG urges Lebanon's leaders to move quickly to alleviate the burden of socio-economic hardship on the people of Lebanon and restore basic services, to prepare for fair and transparent elections to take place on time in 2022, and to initiate the critical reforms needed to restore trust and deliver justice, stability and prosperity for the Lebanese people and to pave the way for enhanced international support,” the group said in a statement.
Recalling its Aug. 3 statement, the group reiterated the importance of swiftly completing the investigation into the Beirut port explosions. “The ISG continues to stand by Lebanon and its people,” the statement added.
The ISG has brought together the United Nations and the governments of China, France, Germany, Italy, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States, together with the EU and the Arab League.?
Also Wednesday, the United Nations special coordinator for Lebanon Joanna Wronecka met Aoun, congratulating him on the formation of a new government. She said the UN organizations were ready to cooperate with the government to achieve the reform program contained in its policy statement and hold parliamentary elections on time, in addition to continued support for the Lebanese Army and security institutions, the state-run National News Agency reported.
Aoun told Wronecka that Lebanon, now that the government had gained Parliament’s confidence vote, would begin negotiations with the IMF aimed at finding “practical solutions to the current economic conditions in line with the economic recovery plan contained in the policy statement.”
“In conjunction with these negotiations, work will be done to address the electricity file that has been frozen for a while, and to rebuild and rehabilitee the Beirut Port while removing the effects of the catastrophic blast that targeted it last year,” Aoun said, referring to the massive explosion that devastated Beirut Port, along with large swaths in the capital, killed 214 people and wounded thousands of others on Aug. 4 last year.
Aoun also assured the UN official that parliamentary elections, set for May 8, 2022, would be held on time in an “atmosphere of democracy and transparency,” saying he welcomed any assistance that could be provided by the United Nations in this respect.