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Ana Maria Luca

Talking to Angelina Eichhorst

NOW talks to EU Ambassador to Lebanon Angelina Eichhorst

EU Ambassador Angelina Eichhorst (via Twitter)

At the beginning of February, Lebanon signed a new protocol with the European Union, under which the country could have access to 19 member-only programs. Last week, the European Commission also announced that it was time to revise its Neighborhood Policy. NOW sat down with Angelina Eichhorst, the EU Ambassador to Lebanon, to discuss what all these changes might mean for Lebanon.

 

 

NOW: How did Lebanon arrive at signing such an important protocol with the EU?

 

Ambassador Angelina Eichhorst: There was a very good coming together of the minds of people who understand the [EU-Lebanon cooperation] issues technically—people here, but also in Brussels. The ambassador in Brussels was very active. In 2012, Jordan signed [a similar document]. Lebanon, of course, had the opportunity to do so since 2006. It’s interesting that the request came in an information session in 2013 only, when Lebanon said: “Look, we want to be able to benefit from these programs.” That was the request. It’s interesting that it happened during a caretaker government.  I have to say that, we, as EU, regarding the complexities and difficulties, have been continuously working with government institutions and partners in this country. And that is astonishing! It’s not like when there is a caretaker government everything stops. No!

 

And why the request—I must tell you that the feedback I get from here is: “Yes, we want to be close to Europe, we feel strongly about Europe, there’s a strong partnership—vice-versa, by the way—but we need technical knowledge.  We need the knowhow. This is where it comes from. […] The European Commission gets this request from the Lebanese Government, the decision was taken by the European Council in the summer.  The European Parliament has to agree, so there was a consultation. So everyone said, “yes, this is good; because we, as EU, can offer more knowledge through participation, exchange, capacity building of institutions.” That’s where the signature came from in February.

 

NOW: What’s next?

 

Eichhorst:The next step is that the government of Lebanon has to ratify. The Council of Ministers has to endorse/ratify this process. Then there has to be an inter-ministerial committee to bring together relevant ministers, and then Lebanon will look at the programs and decide which ones they want to participate in. This is a sovereign decision, we don’t interfere at all. Every minister will need to get a whole file with the details on what these programs entail, what it means for Lebanon, how much does it cost.

 

You need an entry ticket; you need to put money on the table in order to get the benefits. They have to decide. I’m very confident that the ministers know very well if it’s beneficial or not. I don’t think there will be any miscalculation on that point. You can’t push Lebanon to do something that’s not good for the country.

 

The miscalculation in Lebanon is, usually, waiting too long.

 

NOW: And then the money is not enough anymore…

 

Eichhorst: Yes, because adherence to all these programs is not automatic. There is competition. And there are Member States (and candidate countries) that compete, and there are other countries in the region who already signed up who compete. So, if Lebanon waits, then the money, perhaps, would go somewhere else. The same is true for the agencies. Here we’re talking about programs, about funding, but there are also a number of agencies Lebanon can work with. Already Lebanon benefits a lot from agencies they work with.

 

NOW: That is the whole idea behind the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP)…

 

Eichhorst: Yes, that is the whole idea behind the ENP: “Look, we are close, we value each other tremendously.” There were a high number of membership requests at the time when it was launched—we were finalizing with Romania and Bulgaria and just had 10 countries coming in. We offer everything to our neighbors—except membership—including participation in EU programs which are only for the benefit of the member states and candidate countries.   

 

NOW: But this is also to the benefit of the EU.

 

Eichhorst: Exactly, because the implementation of these protocols allowing participation in EU programs need the adaptation of the legislation here. This is how we work in the neighborhood, in general.  […] It is always something I have to explain to the Lebanese counterparts that a lot of legislation needs to be adapted, to be prepared.

 

NOW: You also need to adopt it.

 

Eichhorst: You really need the Parliament going through that whole process. Every day we see with the current government, and also with the members of the Parliament, what can be done to keep that process going. Today, you are in Lebanon in an extremely complex political situation—many, many cooks in the kitchen, more than before. There is more posturing going on between individuals, and what you need in that is clarity and leadership from all. The whole idea about [adopting new] law is to compact a lead framework that the country needs. That’s why it is very important to go back to legislation, because when you have so many troubles around you, you need to have a legal structure, you need to have a legal framework and you need to have functioning institutions.

 

NOW: Was this a planned process—because the partnership between Lebanon and the EU has been there since 2006—or is it a shift in foreign policy in Brussels?

 

Eichhorst: We’ll talk about the switch in foreign policy. I’m not sure it’s a switch in the case of Lebanon, because it has always had good will from the EU institutions. That was obvious in the fact that the EU Parliament approved; the European Council approved [the protocol].

 

NOW: Why is that?

 

Eichhorst: Let me paraphrase what one of my bosses used to say: every time we had the meetings with our Lebanese partners, they were very well prepared. We had so many series of detailed meetings in subcommittees in the ENP Action plan. We had all these experts from Lebanon and all these experts from the EU. We had a meeting on the Mobility Dialogue, for example. Excellent presentations by the Lebanese experts! It’s not just because of the excellent education and background, but you really feel an enthusiasm to work with the EU.  And that you feel politically, at the mid-management level, at the technical level. People like to have that knowhow; they see it as a step forward. And since we see that willingness on the Lebanese side, of course we’re there. It’s give and take.

 

Also, there is a good level of diaspora in the EU, which makes it more interesting, more vibrant. People understand us better. I was always amazed about how many Lebanese went to Brussels; know the institutions. They always come back with a lot of information and knowledge. 

 

This is the good side of what we do, but in a way it’s elitist. It’s not a massive exchange on the popular level. This is only possible with massive exchange at the youth level, bringing in more students in the EU and vice versa. I miss the cultural part—we used to do a lot in the beginning, in 1995, when the Barcelona Process was launched. If there is one country where you have that cultural diversity and massivity it’s Lebanon, and I feel that the EU should do more.

 

I look at Lebanon through the lens of the Lebanese people I work with. Yes, you have a massive influx of refugees. Yes, you have true security concerns. But I want to look at what’s happening in the country that the EU had a relationship with for 40 years. The EU did not come to look at Lebanon yesterday because it has refugees.  Which brings me to the policy change, and this is where a great change could take place.

 

It’s probably the first time ever our leadership says so openly: “Let us listen and draw on the lessons learned.” It’s something people working in this region have always been asking for.

 

NOW: But there was also a problem of perception of the EU foreign policy in this region. Most people thought it was passive.

 

Eichhorst: Yes, it was [perceived like that]. Although, it was not at all like that. Let me paraphrase what people in the region expect from us: “First of all, listen to us.” Politically also. Listen to the leaders, what they have to say. Before we come with a blueprint, politically. I think this is very important for the new Neighborhood Policy, to see it more as at technical instrument which you can make political when you have a leadership that is savvy. Today we are in a far better place than five years ago. Today, the EU foreign policy has evolved, you cannot deny it.

 

On the other hand, it was also an interest to have some countries in the region have the EU come in politically. I won’t use examples, but there are some countries in the region that say “we don’t need the EU politically, but we need technical aid.” Lebanon wants both. This is the only delegation in the region, perhaps, where we use all instruments. We have 320 operations ongoing in this office for a total of EUR 530 million. Many operations are very small, because we give technical support. That means that you give training, you give exchange, equipment, you work on plans, on implementation, you do some monitoring, some analysis. But that’s what people want.

 

In other countries in the region, you have less involvement at all levels. But in Lebanon, they take every opportunity—like now, with these programs. True, it didn’t come in 2012, it came in 2015, but it’s there. There’s willingness. Our policy needs to be adapted to what the countries want from us.

 

Angelina Eichhorst has been Ambassador and Head of the EU Delegation to Lebanon since 2011. She tweets @aneichhorst.

 

Ana Maria Luca tweets @aml1609

“The feedback I get from here is: ‘Yes, we want to be close to Europe, we feel strongly about Europe, there’s a strong partnership—vice-versa, by the way—but we need technical knowledge.’” (Image via Twitter)

In other countries in the region, you have less involvement at all levels. But in Lebanon, they take every opportunity.”