The European Union’s foreign policy chief Tuesday wrapped up a two-day visit to Beirut that underlined EU commitment to Lebanon’s stability and partnership, as well as accompanying government plans to implement economic reforms recommended at the CEDRE conference.
Federica Mogherini left Tuesday night after paying her first visit to Lebanon since the new government was formed on Jan. 31.
“The visit underlined the EU’s strong commitment to Lebanon’s stability and a partnership based on common values and shared interests. Following the first EU-LAS [League of Arab States] summit in Egypt and two weeks ahead of the Brussels III Conference on ‘Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region’ in March, the visit took place at a crucial time,” a statement released by the EU delegation in Beirut said.
Mogherini “expressed the EU’s willingness to keep accompanying Lebanon in implementing its reform agenda and supporting the government and the host communities in the hosting of refugees.”
“The European Union remains committed to Lebanon’s unity, sovereignty, stability and territorial integrity. The EU continues to fully support UNIFIL in its role in maintaining stability at the southern border,” the statement said.
The EU’s foreign policy chief held talks separately with President Michel Aoun, Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Interior Minister Raya El Hassan, and former MP Walid Joumblatt focusing on economic ties between Europe and Lebanon and the Syrian refugee crisis. She also met with UNIFIL Commander Maj. Gen. Stefano Del Col. Mogherini had met Monday with Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil soon after arriving from Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh, where she attended the Arab-EU summit.
During her meetings with Lebanese leaders, Mogherini “underlined the EU’s strong and long-standing partnership with Lebanon and the EU’s willingness to work in close cooperation with the new government in facing various national and regional challenges.” “The EU already works with Lebanon on a wide range of fields, from strengthening the rule of law and respect of human rights to reforming the security sector and creating job opportunities,” the statement added.
During his meeting with Mogherini, Berri urged the EU to play an active role in helping Lebanon demarcate its maritime borders with Israel, according to a statement from the speaker’s office. Berri broached the issue given that, as Lebanon’s waters abut Cyprus’, Lebanese territory “is on the border of the EU.”
“Berri [told Mogherini] that exploring and investing its resources was Lebanon’s best hope at revitalizing its economy and helping it to repay its debts,” the statement said.
Berri has on several occasions warned about Israeli aggressions on potential Lebanese oil reserves in disputed maritime waters. The central dispute surrounds maritime Block 9, which border’s Israel’s maritime zone and includes waters that both countries claim are rightfully theirs.
The presence of more than 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon and its impact on the country’s ailing economy and frail infrastructure figured high in talks between Aoun and Mogherini at Baabda Palace.
Aoun told the EU’s foreign policy chief that Lebanon would continue to work for the return of Syrian refugees to safe areas in their country without waiting for a political solution to the 8-year-old conflict there.
Aoun, according to a statement released by his media office, told Mogherini: “The information that we are getting is that the returnees are receiving care from Syrian authorities, which have provided them with pre-fabricated houses, infrastructure and schools. This is what the EU and other international organizations can ascertain.”
Aoun suggested that international aid to the refugees be given to them after they return home in order to encourage them to do so.
Mogherini expressed the EU countries’ willingness to continue providing assistance to Lebanon in all fields, particularly in the economic and security fields, the statement said.
The EU previously stated its support for individual refugee returns on a voluntary basis, but said it wants to see a political solution to the Syrian crisis before mass returns take place.
Mogherini discussed with Hariri the “situation in Lebanon and the region and the means to boost bilateral relations, the steps necessary to implement the decisions of the CEDRE conference and the projects Lebanon needs in the coming stage,” a statement from the prime minister’s media office said.
Meanwhile, the Future Movement’s parliamentary bloc warned against attempts to ignite political battles over the constitutional powers of the president and the prime minister in outlining Lebanon’s policies. It urged all the parties, including the president, to avoid disputes at the Cabinet sessions that can hinder the new government’s work.
“The bloc affirms that cooperation between the presidency and the premiership should not be a subject of doubts or controversy. It cautions against betting on a return to experiences of dispute between the presidency and the premiership and its repercussions on running the state’s affairs. Prime Minister Saad Hariri had previously warned of this matter, putting it in the context of disrupting the state and the work of institutions,” the bloc said in a statement issued after its weekly meeting chaired by Sidon MP Bahia Hariri.
“The bloc sees that there is no national interest at all in starting any form of fabricated battles over constitutional powers and stresses that constitutional provisions are clear in this respect,” it added.
The statement recalled that Hariri had previously called for “avoiding problems at the Cabinet table and the need for concentrating efforts on preparing the legal and legislative mechanisms for the government’s program.”
“It’s important firstly for this call to include his excellency the president, who has taken the oath to safeguard the Constitution,” the statement added.
The Future bloc was reacting to last week’s Cabinet session, the first since it gained a vote of confidence from Parliament Feb. 15, when a debate on normalizing ties with the Syrian regime prompted Aoun to abruptly end it, saying that he is the one who decides the country’s higher interests. Aoun’s firm stance has rekindled an off-and-on row over the constitutional powers of the president and the prime minister in deciding Lebanon’s policies.