May 23, 2020
When Germany banned Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite political and militant organization, at the end of April, efforts to extend the ban to the whole of the European Union seemed to be gaining steam. The American Jewish Committee, a pro-Israeli advocacy group, sponsored a “trans-atlantic declaration” co-signed by lawmakers from the both sides of the North Atlantic urging the EU to follow the German example. And Germany being a powerful EU member state, supporters of a ban hoped that its decision would decisively shift the balance in the EU in their favor. Since then, however, the momentum for a EU-wide designation has subsided somewhat. At their last meeting on May 14, the EU foreign ministers discussed the plans of the new Israeli government to proceed with the annexation of the occupied Palestinian territories. Some countries, like Sweden, Luxembourg, and Ireland, pushed for serious sanctions against Israel, such as the suspension of the association agreement between the EU and Israel. Israel’s friends in the EU, such as the authoritarian nationalist regime of Victor Orban in Hungary, and few other allies from eastern Europe, tried, as usual, to render any EU reaction toothless. Thus, the choice of timing for renewed pressure on Hezbollah backfired: if the intention of its promoters was to deflect attention from Israeli annexation plans, then it worked exactly the other way around. It was those plans, and not Hezbollah, that dominated the discussion, thus clearly showing the European order of priorities. This, however, does not mean that the attempts to get the EU to ban Hezbollah won’t be pursued further. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the acting director of national intelligence — and ambassador to Germany — Richard Grenell have made the designation of Hezbollah by the EU a primary foreign policy goal. Grenell in particular devoted himself to this issue with a single-minded focus as Washington’s envoy in Berlin. Pressure groups like AJC are relentless in pushing the EU in that direction. The road ahead, however, won’t be straightforward for them. First, the high representative for the EU for foreign policy, Josep Borrell, would need to place Hezbollah designation on the agenda of the national foreign ministers. He would be reluctant to do so, as the German decision is a matter of domestic law in a EU member state. The EU position has not changed following it. It sticks to the decision taken in 2013 that designated Hezbollah military wing as terrorist, but, in a clear reference to Hezbollah’s political role, emphasized that this decision does not prevent continuation of dialogue with “all political forces” and does not affect the delivery of financial aid from the EU and its member states to Lebanon. Diplomats in Brussels acknowledge that the distinction between the military and political wings is artificial, but they find it useful, as it allows them to keep the venues of dialogue open with one of the most influential actors in Lebanese politics. This position is shared by some influential member states, such as France, traditionally a key European player in Lebanon. In fact, the French might even use the German decision to consolidate their position as the main European interlocutors for the Lebanese. Even though the EU states theoretically are supposed to strive for a more commonly aligned foreign policy, in practice they often still prioritize their national interest. And Paris was certainly never shy of throwing its weight around in areas where it felt its core security and economic interests were at stake, like in the Levant. As to the argument, advanced by Pompeo, Grenell, AJC and others, that banning Hezbollah is not an obstacle to engaging with the Lebanese government, this is disingenuous at best. Maintaining relations with a government, part of which is designated terrorist, defeats the whole purpose of the designation. If the purpose is to isolate Hezbollah, as the promoters of the ban claim, they should make any ties with Beirut conditional on Hezbollah’s exclusion from the government. Even the most zealous among them, however, realize that this would be a recipe for a civil war in Lebanon, given Hezbollah’s political, social and military clout. There might also be legal issues arising from dealing with a government containing “terrorist” ministers. These inconsistencies show that the campaign for designation is more a symbolic fight designed to address some long-standing obsessions in the U.S. and Israel than a measure with any practical sense from a European point of view. Moreover, even diplomats from those nations that did ban Hezbollah, such as Britain, find it useful that their EU colleagues maintain channels of communication with the group, and often complain off the record that the lack of such contacts hinders the efficacy of their job in Lebanon. Another weighty reason why some European states might not rush to join Germany is the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, peacekeeping mission deployed at the Lebanese-Israeli border after the war of 2006. Some, like Italy, contribute heavily to its staffing. There is a concern in the Italian security establishment that a terrorist designation could complicate the necessary interaction with Hezbollah on the ground, and place Italian service members in the harm’s way. This is why the former minister of defense rebuked her fellow minister when he, after a trip to Israel, called Hezbollah a terrorist organization. Ultimately, the demise of UNIFIL is not in Israel’s interests, as the Lebanese-Israeli border has been among the most stable ones for the Jewish state since 2016. The removal of the peacekeepers would leave Israel and Hezbollah face to face. This is not an outcome the EU desires to contribute to. Promoters of the ban on Hezbollah frame the measure in terms of the need to curb Iran’s influence in the Levant. The Iranian connection could, however, act as an impetus for restraint for the EU rather than as a catalyst for firmer action. Having resisted the more extreme aspects of the U.S. policy of “maximum pressure” against Iran so far into Trump’s presidency, the EU would have every incentive to wait till November, when a new president might be elected in the U.S. with a more nuanced approach to Middle East. Finally, there is also domestic security dimension to the Hezbollah issue in Europe. Law enforcement agencies on the continent reckon that the far right extremism and Islamic State-style Salafi jihadism are far more potent threats than Shiite groups. Europe-wide designation of Hezbollah could lead to a stigmatization and alienation of Lebanese Shiites, and create a problem where presently there is none. The German interior ministry’s referral to Hezbollah as “the Shiite terrorist organization” is thus most unfortunate in its careless sectarianism. As for such activities of Hezbollah as its participation in the Syrian war on the side of the Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime, its calls for the destruction of Israel, or allegations of other criminal activities on its part, such as money-laundering, existing legal and political frameworks in the EU and its member states are sufficient to deal with them. There are sanctions in place against the organization for its role in Syria, for example. A rigorous application of the existing legislation seems to be a far better way to address the challenges presented by Hezbollah than a blanket EU-wide terrorist designation that would be mostly symbolic in nature and create more problems than it would solve. This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.