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When will the EU help rid Lebanon of the rot at the heart of its politics?

Graham Paul

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As President Trump’s tenure as president of the United States comes to an ignominious end and the world fixates on his last-ditch attempt to cling to power, his foreign policy has gone largely unnoticed. Yet, in the middle of the election madness, Trump has taken a positive step, one that shames Europe and finally shows the international leadership needed to address the systemic problems that exist in Lebanon.

In an unprecedented move, the US Treasury sanctioned Gebran Bassil, the leader of Lebanon’s Free Patriotic Movement and the son-in-law of Lebanon’s president. Announcing the sanctions, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said: "The systemic corruption in Lebanon's political system exemplified by Bassil has helped to erode the foundation of an effective government that serves the Lebanese people.” What was not said explicitly is that Gebran Bassil has been a long standing ally and facilitator for Hezbollah, a terrorist organization and political party in Lebanon.

It appears as though the Trump administration is using its remaining time to limit the influence and power of Hezbollah, one of the main destabilizing influencers in the region and a key regional proxy for Iran. However, while Gebran Bassil is an ally of Hezbollah and certainly part of the political elite to have benefited from the corruption that is endemic in Lebanon, he is not alone. Hezbollah has other allies, some of whom are about to form the next government.

Therein lies the core contradiction exemplified by the Trump Presidency. On the one hand, he shows international leadership by sending a message to Hezbollah and Iran by punishing one of its allies. Yet arguably, the terror group’s most important – if unwitting – ally remains the European Union. If the Trump administration wants to seriously support the Lebanese people, it should start by pressuring the EU to follow suit.

For no matter what Trump or any subsequent US administration does, Hezbollah will remain a malign influence on Lebanese politics until the EU stops distinguishing between the ‘armed wing’ and ‘political wing’. This is a distinction that not even Hezbollah respects, and one only made after the group committed an act of terrorism in an EU member state.

The EU’s refusal to accept reality is particularly troubling as Hezbollah have been very open and upfront about itself. Its deputy leader explicitly stating on the record that: "We don't have a military wing and a political one; we don't have Hezbollah on one hand and the resistance party on the other... Every element of Hezbollah, from commanders to members as well as our various capabilities, are in the service of the resistance, and we have nothing but the resistance as a priority."

To some extent, the EU is not solely at fault. They have to deal with the reality on the ground. In no small part thanks to Saad Hariri, the former and now next Prime Minister of Lebanon, Hezbollah has morphed from a marginal sectarian force into a fully-fledged member of the executive branch, holding cabinet positions and running state departments. The terrorist organisation is now part of the mainstream and now has the credibility no previous terrorist group has ever had on their domestic stage.

Yet that only tells half the story. For within Lebanon there is a division even within families over how to approach Hezbollah. Some like Saad Hariri make a calculated choice, one born from political expediency, to work with and legitimise Hezbollah. Others like businessman Bahaa Hariri, Saad’s brother, have in recent months become vocal critics of the terror group, sectarian politics and rampant corruption in Lebanon.

This new breed of Lebanese activists exemplified by Bahaa Hariri, support US sanctions and are critical of the European Union’s intransigence when it comes Hezbollah. In recent years such activists have given up on the European Union, and started lobbying individual European countries.  We have seen some progress with both the UK and Germany outlawing Hezbollah.

However, if as the Trump administration claims, they want to truly help the people of Lebanon to end corruption, it needs to work with the EU in a coordinated manner. Sanctions from the US alone will have little impact on the terror group if they retain unfettered access to the EU.

The US has taken a step in the right direction and shown that it is willing to take steps to make life for supporters and facilitators of Hezbollah difficult. There is a rot at the heart of Lebanese politics and if the Trump administration, or the incoming Biden administration, really wants an effective government that serves the interests of Lebanese people, they must recruit the EU if they hope to remove Hezbollah from the political establishment.

Belgium

Belgian artist's 'portable oasis' creates COVID-free bubble for one

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When governments around Europe told people to create a "bubble" to limit their social contacts during the COVID-19 pandemic, this was probably not what they had in mind, write Bart Biesemans and Clement Rossignol.

Alain Verschueren, a Belgian artist and social worker, has been strolling through the capital Brussels wearing a "portable oasis" - a plexiglass mini-greenhouse which rests on his shoulders, cocooning him in a bubble of air purified by the aromatic plants inside.

Verschueren, 61, developed the idea 15 years ago, inspired by the lush oases in Tunisia where he had previously worked. In a city where face coverings are mandatory to curb the spread of COVID-19, his invention has gained a new lease of life.

"It was about creating a bubble in which I could lock myself in, to cut myself off a world that I found too dull, too noisy or smelly," Verschueren said, adding that he has asthma and finds breathing within his contraption more comfortable than wearing a facemask.

Belgian artist Alain Verschueren wears his "Portable Oasis" while performing in a street, saying he wanted to be in his bubble in the middle of the city, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Brussels, Belgium April 16, 2021. Picture taken April 16, 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman
Belgian artist Alain Verschueren wears his "Portable Oasis" while performing in a street, saying he wanted to be in his bubble in the middle of the city, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Brussels, Belgium April 16, 2021. Picture taken April 16, 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Belgian artist Alain Verschueren wears his "Portable Oasis" while performing in a street, saying he wanted to be in his bubble in the middle of the city, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Brussels, Belgium 16 April. REUTERS/Yves Herman

"As time went by, I noticed that people were coming up to me and talking to me. This isolation became much more a way of connecting," he said.

Onlookers in Brussels appeared amused and confused by the man wandering between the shops - mostly closed due to COVID-19 restrictions - encased in a pod of thyme, rosemary and lavender plants.

"Is it a greenhouse? Is it for the bees? Is it for the plants? We don't know, but it's a good idea," Charlie Elkiess, a retired jeweller, told Reuters.

Verschueren said he hoped to encourage people to take better care of the environment, to reduce the need to protect ourselves from air and noise pollution.

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EU

Indo-Pacific: Council adopts conclusions on EU strategy for co-operation

EU Reporter Correspondent

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The Council approved conclusions on an EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, setting out the EU’s intention to reinforce its strategic focus, presence and actions in this region of prime strategic importance for EU interests. The aim is to contribute to regional stability, security, prosperity and sustainable development, at a time of rising challenges and tensions in the region.

The renewed EU commitment to the Indo-Pacific, a region spanning from the east coast of Africa to the Pacific island states, will have a long-term focus and will be based on upholding democracy, human rights, the rule of law and respect for international law.

Current dynamics in the Indo-Pacific have given rise to intense geopolitical competition adding to increasing tensions on trade and supply chains as well as in technological, political and security areas. Human rights are also being challenged. These developments increasingly threaten the stability and security of the region and beyond, directly impacting on the EU’s interests.

Consequently, the EU’s approach and engagement will look to foster a rules-based international order, a level playing field, as well as an open and fair environment for trade and investment, reciprocity, the strengthening of resilience, tackling climate change and supporting connectivity with the EU. Free and open maritime supply routes in full compliance with international law remain crucial. The EU will look to work together with its partners in the Indo-Pacific on these issues of common interest.  

The EU will continue to develop partnerships in the areas of security and defence, including to address maritime security, malicious cyber activities, disinformation, emerging technologies, terrorism, and organized crime.

The EU and its regional partners will also work together in order to mitigate the economic and human effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and work towards ensuring an inclusive and sustainable socio-economic recovery.

The Council tasked the High Representative and the Commission with putting forward a Joint Communication on co-operation in the Indo-Pacific by September 2021.

The conclusions were adopted by the Council by written procedure.

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Conference on the Future of Europe: Make your voice heard

EU Reporter Correspondent

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Share your views on the EU, organize events across Europe and discuss with others through the new digital platform on the Conference on the Future of Europe, EU affairs.

Launched on 19 April, the platform is the multilingual hub of the Conference on the Future of Europe that will allow people to get involved and suggest what changes need to take place in the EU. Europeans will also be able to see what others propose, comment on them and endorse ideas.

The EU institutions have committed to listening to what people say and to following up on the recommendations made. The Conference is expected to reach conclusions by the spring of 2022.

How do you take part?

Choose a topic that interests you. It could be anything from climate change to digital issues or EU democracy. If you don’t see a category with your topic, share your opinion in the Other Ideas category.

Once you are in a specific category, you can read the introduction and explore some useful links. On the Ideas tab, you can share your views and find the ideas of others. Join the discussion by leaving a comment, or vote for ideas you like so that more people can find them.

You can submit your comment in any of the EU's official 24 languages. All comments can be translated automatically in any of the other languages.

Under the Events tab, you can explore events organised online or near you, register for an event or prepare your own.

The platform fully respects users’ privacy and EU data protection rules.

What happens when you submit an opinion?

The submitted opinions and the debate they initiate will be the basis for discussions in citizens’ panels that will be organised across the EU at regional, national and European level. These panels will include people from different backgrounds so that they can be representative of the whole population of the EU.

The conclusions of the different panels will be then presented at a plenary session of the Conference, which will bring together citizens, representatives of EU institutions and national parliaments.

Join the discussion on social media about the Conference with the hashtag #TheFutureIsYours.

Conference on the Future of Europe 

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