France, US agree to jointly ramp up pressure on Lebanon’s officials
PARIS – Pressure is building up on Lebanon’s political class to end their ongoing dispute over the formation of a new government that is critical to transforming the country and launching long-stalled reforms.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Friday his country and the United States have agreed to act together to put pressure on Lebanese officials responsible for the political and economic calamity gripping the country.
“We have decided to act together to put pressure on those responsible. We know who they are,” Le Drian told a news conference with US counterpart Antony Blinken in Paris.
“We need to see real leadership in Beirut,” Blinken added.
A fight among Lebanese leaders to secure power is at the heart of the government turmoil, with the feud threatening to drag the country into a total financial crash.
Lebanon’s economic meltdown, triggered by decades of corruption and mismanagement, began in late 2019 and has intensified in recent months. The World Bank said earlier this month the crisis is likely to rank as one of the worst the world has seen in more than 150 years, adding that the economy contracted 20.3% in 2020 and is expected to shrink a further 9.5% this year.
Lebanon defaulted on paying back its debt for the first time in March, while talks with the International Monetary Fund on a bailout package stopped last year. The crisis has been the biggest threat to Lebanon’s stability since the 1975-90 civil war ended.
A power struggle has emerged between premier-designate Saad Hariri on one side and the president Michel Aoun and his son-in-law Gebran Bassil, who heads the largest bloc in parliament, on the other. It has worsened the crisis despite warnings from world leaders and economic experts of the dire economic conditions tiny Lebanon is facing.
Hariri was named to form a new government in October and has not succeeded so far. The government of Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned days after a massive blast in Beirut on August 4, that killed 211 people and injured more than 6,000.
Paris, which has led aid efforts to Lebanon, has sought to ramp up pressure on squabbling politicians, after failed attempts to rally them to agree a new government and launch reforms to unlock foreign cash.
France said it was taking measures to restrict entry for some Lebanese leaders for blocking efforts to tackle the unprecedented crisis, which is rooted in decades of state corruption and debt.
Tweeting ahead of his arrival in Beirut last May, Jean-Yves Le Drian said French travel restrictions on Lebanese officials suspected of corruption or hindering the formation of the Cabinet were “just the start.”
Earlier this month, the European Union’s foreign policy chief berated Lebanese politicians for delays in forming a new cabinet, warning the union could impose sanctions on those behind the political stalemate in the crisis-hit country.
Josep Borrell made his comments at the presidential palace near the capital Beirut after meeting Aoun. It was the first meeting in a two-day visit to Lebanon.
Borrell’s comments came amid reports in Lebanese media that France and the EU are putting together proposals for possible travel bans and freezes on assets of some politicians.
Borrell said Lebanese politicians should quickly form a new government, implement reforms and reach a deal with the International Monetary Fund to start getting the tiny country out of its paralysing economic and financial crisis.
Sanctions have been threatened in an effort by some EU states, led by France, to push politicians to end the deadlock.
An EU diplomatic note showed criteria for imposing possible sanctions were likely to be corruption, obstructing efforts to form a government, financial mishandling and human rights abuses.
The bloc has yet to decide on its approach. Paris says it has restricted entry to some Lebanese officials who it sees as blocking efforts to tackle the crisis, without naming them.