With Hezbollah unchecked, the EU falls short of its own security aspirations

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The German EU presidency offers a chance to address the EU's inaction on Hezbollah, writes Alina Bricman. EPA-EFE/CLEMENS BILAN

The German EU presidency offers a chance to address the EU’s inaction on Hezbollah, writes Alina Bricman.

Alina Bricman is B’nai B’rith International Director of EU Affairs.

As calls for designating Hezbollah as a terrorist organization in its entirety grow louder, much of the attention has been – rightly – on documenting the organization’s extensive operations in Europe and its malign influence on Lebanon and the region. Much less on the EU’s reluctance to do away with the artificial distinction between its so-called political and military wings.

As we near in on the eighth anniversary of the deadly attack on EU soil, in Burgas, Bulgaria, where Hezbollah operatives blew up a bus of over 40 passengers, leaving 6 dead – the onus now, should be on the EU to align its stated security policy objectives with its values and the reality on the ground.

The recent decision by Germany to ban  Hezbollah in its entirety shortly before assuming the EU Council Presidency, as well as the subsequent unanimous resolution in Austria’s parliament calling on their government to follow suit, must represent a vigorous new push in taking on the group.

‘Les grands amis du Liban’

With its front as a social actor, prominent role in Lebanon’s ruling government coalition, and military capability thought to be superior to that of the Lebanese army itself, the influence of Hezbollah in the country is unwieldy. An established tenet of EU foreign policy in Lebanon   has been that keeping communication channels open with the Iran-sponsored organization is instrumental to Lebanese stability.

France, “Le grand ami du Liban” – with its strong cultural and historical ties with the Lebanese Republic, has long been a proponent of this view, particularly now as Lebanon struggles with a sovereign debt crisis and up until the pandemic, was engulfed in large-scale protests. Paris is not alone in this approach, to which Belgium and the Scandinavian peninsula also subscribe.

Given this entrenched mindset, it took a bombing on EU soil to trigger serious discussions about designating Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.  Regrettably, what came out of this was a half-measure: artificially and nominally splitting Hezbollah into political and military wings and only labelling the latter a terrorist organization. This is of course a distinction without a difference – the two wings overlap and answer to the same command structure; Hezbollah itself does not regard its two alleged wings as separate entities. But what’s perhaps more noteworthy is that, the EU countries now most in favour of maintaining the status quo were themselves the ones opposing this distinction prior to the 2012 attack. At the time they were doing so to oppose a ban of any kind – even the limited one in place today – but their argument about a lack of substantive difference should stand.

The partial ban doesn’t do nearly enough to help

There is a clear dissonance in the EU’s approach between the short-term effects of not upsetting Hezbollah and its coalition partners and the long-term effects of continuing to lend legitimacy to a murderous paramilitary organization which continues to be the main source of instability in Lebanon.

Last September, the U.N. Special Tribunal for Lebanon indicted Hezbollah member Salim Jamil Ayyash of three bombings targeting Lebanese politicians. The Tribunal is expected to pronounce judgement shortly on an earlier case against Ayyash, and four other Hezbollah fighters for orchestrating the bombing that killed Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others and wounded 220 passers-by in 2005.

In addition, Hezbollah has continued in the past year to exert influence on Lebanese politics by questionable means, including assaulting demonstrators in Beirut and setting fire to their tents, intimidating and censoring journalists and buying votes. This is all in addition to its documented terrorist and organized crime activities abroad, including in the EU, which triggered the German ban.

A Secure Europe in a Better World

The European Security Strategy of 2003 remains the guiding document to comprehensively address the EU’s security needs to this day. It’s stated objective and motto – “A secure Europe in a Better World” – is meant to anchor the strategy – in EU spirit – “on our core values”.

In an increasingly polarized and tense international arena, the EU has positioned itself as a main – or even the main, value-based actor. Yet  weak and politicized action – or rather inaction – on Hezbollah has fallen short of this worthwhile objective. Calls to add Hezbollah in its entirety to the terrorist list are often dismissed as hawkish or even biased and avoided by some of the key national-level actors. While enough support for a ban could in the long-run theoretically be garnered from certain member-states, the mobilization of the EU’s oldest, largest members – strong democracies that shape the discourse of the EU – is essential, if the criteria is one of core values.

This should particularly be the case since the EU-Lebanon partnership priorities for 2016-2020 pledge to work with Lebanon to promote the shared values of democracy and the rule of law.

It’s worth remembering that one of the leading voices, in 2013, following the Burgas attack, to ban Hezbollah entirely came from then Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Frans Timmermans, a champion of progressive politics. His example, back then, ought to be followed.

The EU has, since 2003 and the adoption of the European Security Strategy, taken important steps in the fight against terrorism – from appointing a Counter-Terrorism Coordinator and reinforcing the Crisis Coordination Arrangements and the Civil Protection Mechanism, to increased data sharing with the US and other international actors. Yet without the political will to tackle the issues, we are not harnessing the full potential of these tools. The upcoming months are essential in maximizing the capital of the important decisions at the national level in Germany and Austria, and the EU must be sure to make use of the momentum.

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