The European Union is seeking a more serious role in Lebanon as judges and ministers face corruption charges linked to the Beirut explosion.

The European Union is set to begin a serious intervention in Lebanon following months of political turmoil, which climaxed on August 4 with the devastating explosion at its port, TRT World can reveal.

The news coincides with events unfolding in Lebanon today of a bevvy of private prosecutions against corrupt leaders there, including judges and ministers, which is believed to have support from EU officials in Brussels who have been following corruption in Lebanon for years.

A meeting of MEPs in the European parliament this week, which was scheduled to discuss Belarus, ended with a point of order by a French MEP who called for the European Commission to intervene in Lebanon.

“Following my intervention, the European Commission will now look at Lebanon from the 1st September,” Thierry Mariani MEP told TRT World via telephone. A former minister in the Nicholas Sarkozy government, and an expert on Syria and Lebanon, revealed that an emergency team of MEPs will quickly prepare to go to Lebanon, probably in October, to attempt to engage with the elite there, as well as civil society and activists in a bid to restore law and order and oversee an emergency aid plan.

“We’re in the process now of planning a trip to Lebanon but much depends on the situation there, with covid, for example,” explains Mr Mariani. 

A draft agenda from the Committee on Foreign Affairs confirms that Lebanon will be on the agenda in an extraordinary meeting on September 1.

“And we can also take advantage of being in Beirut to have meetings with others,” he adds.  

One of those 'other' meetings will probably be with a radical group of secular lawyers who are spearheading a campaign to expose corruption.

A grassroots legal organisation called United for Lebanon (UFL) is ploughing ahead with unprecedented private prosecutions against 28 corrupt officials, which it claims are responsible for the Beirut explosion which wounded over 6,000 people on August 4.

It’s the only legal initiative to prosecute corrupt senior officials as none of the normal government bodies have made any moves to bring those guilty to account. By contrast, the Attorney General in Lebanon has issued orders to detain the port director who was arrested three days after the blast, along with 19 port workers.

Thierry Mariani in the European Parliament, November 2019.
Thierry Mariani in the European Parliament, November 2019. (European Parliament)

Prosecuting the ruling elite 

United for Lebanon (UFL), a maverick group of lawyers who are fighting corruption in Lebanon, lodged their unprecedented case this week against 28 judges, government ministers and army commanders.

Previous corruption cases they have also filed include for the garbage crisis, embezzlement of social security funds and individual human rights cases.

At a press conference, its chief, Rami Ollaik, explained why he and his colleagues had taken such huge risks in a country which has a track record of murdering lawyers, journalists and activists who take on the system.

“The first and most important responsibility of The State is to protect the people and defend their interests against anything that threatens their security and safety,” he says. “Having this said and given the atrocities and the range of responsibilities – be it of national security or socioeconomic nature – those at the state highest ranks should be held accountable first.”

“My reaction to the news that the EU is about to debate an action plan for Lebanon and that MEPs are planning a trip here at the end of October is highly positive,” Ollaik tells TRT World

“But they had better be prepared to work with us and also others who have been sidelined by the political elite. They have to team up with the right people otherwise the trip will just be a media buzz and nothing else.”

Former Lebanese minister Marwan Hamadeh — the first member of Lebanese Parliament to resign after the Beirut explosion — is sceptical about EU support but more upbeat about the legal cases. 

Speaking to TRT World from Beirut he said, “I think we should start somewhere and I support this initiative,” he said. “If we don’t get things moving on one front and the judiciary is one important front to work on, we will be a new Somalia in a few weeks.”

The group of lawyer-activists held a second press conference in Beirut on August 27, as the cases begin to cause a stir. “We’re the only ones with these cases against those responsible for the port explosion and now we’re reaching out to embassies in Beirut to recognise us and acknowledge our credibility, as I’m now constantly getting calls from lawyers and judges,” adds Ollaik, who is a professor at the prestigious American University of Beirut.

The cases the group is filing are levelled against a number of elite individuals, including the present and two previous prime ministers which Ollaik believes have blood on their hands over the Beirut explosion.

European (in)competence?

Ironically it is the EU though which has contributed, in part, to the runaway corruption in Lebanon as its own $35 million waste management scheme was revealed in an investigation to be a total sham. 

In December of last year, MEPs forced the outgoing EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, to admit that there was a bad smell coming from the EU schemes in Lebanon, with some critics going as far as to accuse her of covering up the scams to protect colleagues.

French President Emmanuel Macron, center, visits the devastated site of the explosion at the port of Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday Aug.6, 2020.
French President Emmanuel Macron, center, visits the devastated site of the explosion at the port of Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday Aug.6, 2020. (AP)

For some though, a recent visit by French President Emmanuel Macron has left some confusion over any EU initiatives, given that Macron often plays the role of an unofficial EU foreign policy tsar. Also, Macron’s second visit to Beirut is scheduled for September 1, where much hope has been placed on him to help form a second government, which is expected to be led by Saad Hariri.  

"Does it mean that the EU countries are not insisting on linking the Lebanon aid to political or economic reforms? And who's going to monitor the aid to stop corruption?” asks veteran journalist Rita Sfeir. “Second: does it mean that the French initiative lead by Macron is isolated from the EU initiative?” she asks.

An ex conservative MEP who was also a Middle East expert is not so upbeat though. “The less foreign policy meddling by the EU, the better,” argues Geoffrey van Orden MEP. “Until the Hezbollah structures are dismantled and Syrian/Iranian influence removed, there is little chance of any durable peace and security,” he told TRT World.

Experts have estimated that Lebanon needs $15 billion dollars to rebuild its economy. Previously in 2018, in Paris, leaders from Western countries pledged to loan Lebanon around $11 billion but this was held back due to conditions not being met.

Since October the economy in Lebanon has been in freefall with a collapsing currency and banks freezing accounts. Recently, after the Beirut explosion, the entire government resigned amidst talks of earlier than scheduled parliamentary elections.