After an absence of more than three years from Damascus, the European Union High Representative Javier Solana met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad this week. Curiously, he did so on March 14, two years after almost 1 million Lebanese assembled in Beirut to protest the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the continued Syrian occupation. While in Syria, Solana asserted that it was “fundamental to reach peace, stability and independence for Lebanon. The EU has often pledged its support for Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora’s government. Yet in order to realize Europe’s vision and bolster Lebanon’s legitimate government much has to be done. Lebanon continues to be troubled by the protests and political deadlock initiated by Hezbollah and its allies. They are demanding a right of veto in the government, which would allow them, among other things, to thwart the tribunal investigating Hariri’s assassination, in which Syria is considered the leading suspect. In judging Syrian overtures towards Europe this vital context must be taken into account. When asked about the implications of his visit to Syria at the press conference held this week after a meeting with Seniora, Solana admitted that his visit to Syria marked a change in EU policy. He added that Syria was part of the Euro-Mediterranean scheme and that a resumption of institutional relations with the Assad regime was taking place. Yet the EU should wait before engaging Syria with partnership measures such as an association agreement. Drawn up over two years ago, this instrument was stalled after Hariri’s death. To even indicate that the agreement could be finalized before the UN investigation has been brought to a close would be highly damaging to Lebanon’s emergence as a fully independent state.
Political gestures to Syria without concurrent and substantive financial support to the Lebanese would be inadequate. Following the devastation of the July-August 2006 war, the EU pledged some $130 million in aid packages. Iran supplied Hezbollah with reconstruction funds estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars. It is of the utmost importance that European economic assistance not be outdone by such contributions. Moreover, “most, but not all this [European] money has been spent, a European Council official noted. EU assistance must be swift, effective and visible. Unless the Europeans and other responsible actors take the lead in financing the reconstruction process, other parties, primarily Hezbollah, will beat them to the post. EU assistance has focused on the more immediate humanitarian needs. This is of vital importance, yet the actual rebuilding of damaged homes and reconstruction of infrastructure is of equal importance. Such work serves as a strong symbolic testament of political commitment to the Lebanese people. It is here that Hezbollah has come up trumps. As journalist Robert Fisk has noted, most households in South Lebanon have received a minimum of $12,000 for these very purposes from Hezbollah. A continuation of this state of affairs will strengthen the party by winning it more supporters and will create the impression that the central Lebanese government cannot provide for its people. Redeveloping Lebanon’s largely anemic economy would also reinforce the position of Seniora. The Paris III donor conference, at which the EU pledged $650 million, builds on crucial lessons learnt from its 2002 predecessor. On the Lebanese side, the government came up with a previously absent long-term reform agenda for the country. It was this earlier lack of certainty that was a major stumbling block for European payment of promised funds. This time around, the way the money will be spent appears far clearer, meaning that EU promises are more likely to be kept. Also, the structural modifications-the result of placing the funds under the International Monetary Fund’s supervision-deserve a more upbeat outlook. Now, a more concerted distribution has become possible. Yet further tools could be used here, at least for EU funds. This includes, in particular, the recently concluded Action Plan (AP) within the framework of the European Neighborhood Policy. The AP is a highly detailed document and can thereby ensure a smooth channeling of funds. Moreover, it would help prevent money from being siphoned off for use in patronage networks, which would weaken the legitimacy of the government and further expose it to allegations of corruption. Unfortunately, under Paris III much of the EU’s monetary support comes in the form of loans. While these are offered competitively, both in terms of the grace period given and the interest rate set, they are also highly problematic. Their role in adding to Lebanon’s already enormous national debt creates the impression of a double-edged sword among many Lebanese. This undercuts the government’s achievements in acquiring such funding. Instead, more direct aid needs to be given in their place. Having expressed its initial support for the March 14 movement, the EU must continue to do so-with a full range of political and economic measures. At his press conference with Seniora, Javier Solana said that Lebanon “can always count on the European Union. Such reassurances are comforting-yet they must be followed by additional real actions. Dana Mossis senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies, and Daniel Rackowski a senior fellow for European affairs, both at the Transatlantic Institute in Brussels. They wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.