More than four years after Lebanon first felt the knock-on effects of the neighboring Syrian war – in refugees, in economic strains, in deadly suicide bombings and other jihadist atrocities, and in political polarization – the same fallout has made its way slowly but steadily northwest across the European continent. Today, perhaps more than at any other time in their modern histories, Lebanon and the member states of the European Union appear bound by interconnecting threads of fate.
Largely for that reason, the EU is looking to work closer than ever in the coming months with Lebanon, already the largest recipient of EU humanitarian aid worldwide after South Sudan and Syria itself, according to its Ambassador to Beirut, Christina Lassen. Yet the EU also now faces internal disarray following Britain’s vote two weeks ago to leave it, triggering fears that other members may follow suit, potentially precipitating the breakup of the Union altogether.
On Friday, NOW met Ambassador Lassen – who was also previously the Danish ambassador to Syria from 2009 to June 2012, among other posts in the region – to ask about these and related issues in her office on Beirut’s Charles Helou Avenue, overlooking the same Mediterranean so perilously traversed by so many of the very refugee families under discussion.
NOW: Obviously, Lebanon is going through something of a rough time, security-wise, with the Al-Qaa bombings, and reports almost every day of new attack plots. What can you say about the current threat level, how bad do you assess it?
Ambassador Christina Lassen: I was just seeing the head of General Security, Maj. Gen. [Abbas] Ibrahim, this morning, and one of the things we discussed was exactly this, that the terrorist threat level all over the world is high right now. It’s something that we’re all facing. Just these last ten days of Ramadan, we saw the attacks in Al-Qaa, of course, but we also saw in the same week explosions or attacks in Bangladesh; the huge, tragic one in Baghdad; in Istanbul airport of course […] Recently we had America, even, we’ve had several attacks in Europe. So it’s all over the place, we’re all facing the same kind of danger […] we really have to fight this generational challenge together.
And unfortunately for Lebanon, of course, they’re even more on the frontline of all of this, having Syria just next door. So that’s a specific concern for us and I think all of us, all EU member states but in general the international community try to do everything we can to assist this country, to tackle that challenge. I think we’re quite impressed already with what we see here from the Lebanese security forces and the army, how well they’ve been able to foil attacks, and how quickly, for example, after the Beirut attacks in November they were able to find the whole cell and arrest probably everyone implicated.
But the actual threat levels here, I’m not privy to any other information on that. That’s the Lebanese authorities who are better to ask about that. We, of course, seek to assist as much as we can, both as the European Union as such and several of our member states are working also directly with the security forces and the army. What we can do from our side, and what we’ve done for a number of years already is work directly with the different security forces, with the police, with the army – which is quite unusual, actually, because traditionally the European Union hasn’t been working directly with a national army in any other country in the world before. [We offer] capacity-building, and equipment, training of course, we have currently about €45m ($50m) of programs going on. And in addition to this, because we see security in a broader sense, we also of course provide large support to the justice sector, on human rights, on countering violent extremism, so we see all of this as sort of working together in a more comprehensive approach to security […]
NOW: One of the consequences of these heightened security fears has been Syrian refugees coming back into the spotlight. We’ve seen renewed calls from politicians to sort of ‘get tough’ on refugees, crack down on their camps, some even saying deport them back to Syria. And hundreds have been arrested by the authorities in the past few weeks. Where does the EU stand on this, do you believe refugees are a security threat to Lebanon?
Lassen: We’re not privy to what kind of intelligence there is. We of course always think that we should be very careful in blaming specific groups in the country. And I think everybody’s very much aware of that. I think we also had a lot of very pragmatic and reasonable rhetoric from leading politicians, basically […] urging calm, and so far we haven’t seen any sort of very negative retaliations or anything after what happened. I think it’s still very unclear as far as I can understand who exactly were behind these attacks, but of course, like we saw in the fall of 2014 also, it’s normal when people get scared and these kinds of attacks happen that people are worried, and there will be these kinds of suspicions. But I think most people know that these are poor people who came here to seek refuge, and have been in general very well received by the Lebanese, and I think in that sense, looking back at the last five years we’ve been quite impressed, having such a large number of Syrian nationals on Lebanese territory, that we haven’t seen more of that kind of rhetoric and more clashes.
So we hope that that will continue and everybody will keep calm, but it is of course a period with a lot of tension, where we hope that this will not hurt innocent people who are here and living either in refugee settlements or as refugees in this country.
NOW: The EU was critical back in 2014 of the decision to postpone parliamentary elections for the second time. Your predecessor Angelina Eichhorst called it “a sad day in Lebanon’s constitutional history.” What’s your impression regarding next year’s supposed elections? Based on your conversations with officials, and so on, do you believe they will go ahead?
Lassen: At least, that’s what we hear. Recently the minister of interior himself assured all the EU ambassadors that elections were indeed going to take place on time, as planned, next year. And I think again it’s something that not just the European Union but the international community in general have been urging Lebanon, ever since the postponement of parliamentary elections, but also of course [in light of the] presidential vacuum now for more than two years, to really put responsible political leaders together, put personal and partisan interests aside, and elect a president and carry out the parliamentary elections according to schedule.
And, I think, probably the view on this has changed a little bit over the last couple of months because we saw that it was actually possible to successfully carry out municipal elections all over the country in a good atmosphere and without any major incidents.
So my feeling is that, in general, in the political establishment, the feeling is now that there’s no reason to postpone these elections once again. And also that people are working seriously towards actually making sure that that takes place. That’s still our line, and we certainly hope it takes place.
NOW: Is it something that you encourage or urge when you meet with officials, or do you not intervene?
Lassen: No, this is something we continuously encourage and urge. Even more so maybe in the last few weeks because, again, after the municipal elections that whole debate came up again. It became clearer that the security argument, at least for now, doesn’t seem to be a real reason to postpone once again. It also, we think, showed that the Lebanese population is very eager to carry out its democratic obligation and rights. And, again, what we hear from politicians is that this is also their general view, so we hope that’s happening.
NOW: You mentioned the presidency; there’ve been a few reports in the last two weeks of politicians flying to supposedly significant capitals, meeting with regional leaders, and there’s a lot of speculation that perhaps, once again, there could be a president on the doorstep. Do you get that impression?
Lassen: Inshallah [smiles]. I’ve been here a year now, and we’ve had those kinds of hopes and speculations several times since I arrived. I think maybe, again, pushed a little bit by the municipal elections it seems that now a lot of people speculate that there might be some kind of deal on its way. At the same time you also hear a lot of people, including politicians, saying exactly the opposite, so it’s hard to know exactly. Again, this is something for Lebanese political leaders to decide on. We tend to hear a lot in this country that [the question of the presidency is] something that’s being decided in foreign capitals. But frankly we in general think that it’s first and foremost up to the responsible Lebanese political leaders and then once they agree, then of course maybe there might be some consultations also with regional powers, but in the end it’s a Lebanese issue that should be solved here.
NOW: Moving from Lebanon to the European Union itself, of course everyone knows the EU does a great deal for refugees in the region, here in Lebanon and elsewhere. I don’t think anybody disputes that. But there is one new policy the EU has come up with that’s come under some criticism: the agreement with Turkey to transport asylum seekers from Greece to Turkey in exchange for the EU receiving refugees from Turkey. I’m sure you’ve seen some of the criticism – Human Rights Watch said it “showed a disturbing disregard for international law.” Amnesty International called it “reckless and illegal.” What’s your response?
Lassen: Well, I’m glad you say nobody’s disputing our big assistance to the region, because I think it has been really quite impressive, and something that has constantly been intensified here. In the last four years the EU and its member states have spent more than €2bn ($2.2bn) in Lebanon alone, trying to assist this country with the huge challenges of hosting more than one million Syrian refugees […] Lebanon last year was actually our third most important country in terms of humanitarian assistance, [after] South Sudan and Syria. So that’s really important […] But our assistance goes much further than humanitarian assistance to cover the most vulnerable refugees’ basic needs. In fact, more than half our assistance today is aimed at the Lebanese host communities and the local infrastructure that bears the pressure of the large inflow of refugees. So we do all we can to ensure that the water infrastructure, the schools and the health systems in the areas most affected are supported and strengthened, just to give a few examples.
On what we’re doing in Europe, obviously there’s been a lot of criticism about the deal with Turkey, but probably also some misunderstandings. We have to acknowledge that we are in a situation that is completely unprecedented. There’s a refugee and migration crisis that exceeds anything anybody has seen since maybe the Second World War, at least in our part of the world. I think clearly none of us were really ready for something like this […]
We have had more than one million Syrian asylum seekers come to Europe in the past few years, but in 2015 alone more than one million people made their way to the EU. What people don’t know so much in this region is that it is not just Syrian refugees arriving to Europe. We have just as many refugees, asylum seekers or migrants coming from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and many of the West African countries. So there’s just been huge pressure on the European Union’s borders in the last couple of years, and we saw last year how it went a little bit beyond what people were prepared to handle.
So the logic behind the EU-Turkey deal was to try to break the business model of the human smugglers. We had all these tragic incidents with smugglers trying to sail refugees into Europe. We’re trying to break that business model, basically making it impossible for them to continue. And making some kind of arrangement so that the people in the refugee camps get an opportunity to come, instead of the people who chose to pay smugglers and these dangerous routes. And, in a sense, you can tell that it works, because the numbers have really fallen dramatically since that deal was made. And now the idea of course is that the people who entered illegally can be sent back to Turkey after a very thorough examination of everyone’s case, and then we’ll take the equivalent number of refugees from Turkey […]
NOW: Finally, as a British national, I can’t not ask you about the development that’s probably been distracting both of us from our day jobs in the past few weeks – Brexit. Firstly, do you think it will actually happen? Because this is looking increasingly unclear. The other day the Austrian finance minister, for example, said that he didn’t think Britain would in fact leave.
Lassen: There’s no way I can speculate on this. All we know is there’s been a clear, just, transparent, democratic process in Britain. The British people voted to leave the European Union. We respect that, but we also regret that. And right now, I think we’re all waiting to see what will happen next, because as you know, the British government has not yet activated this Article 50 that’s really the basis for negotiating an exit. And obviously none of us have tried this before. So it’s all new to everyone. But right now I’d say the ball is in the court of Britain. And we’re waiting to see what happens.
NOW: Is the EU pushing Britain to activate Article 50, or is it neutral on the matter?
Lassen: I think you can find statements […] from the week just after the referendum […] both by the commission and by member states, saying basically if this is going to happen, it’s probably better to initiate this process quickly, so we can get some clarity here. Because obviously we’re all in a big vacuum on clarity right now. But I don’t know if that’s being pushy or not.
NOW: Will it affect Lebanon?
Lassen: I think it’s a bit too early to speculate. Seen from our point of view, we don’t expect it will. As us, the European Union working with Lebanon, we don’t see why it should have any kind of consequence. We’ll still continue our strong cooperation. […] in fact before all this happened we were in a process where we wanted to strengthen our relationship with Lebanon, again because of all these joint challenges that we have, so we’re right now working with the government to define a whole new set of partnership priorities, and we’ve been working since the London conference in February on a new compact of things that we mutually want to do to strengthen our cooperation. So this, as far as I can tell, is not going to affect anything in our relations with Lebanon.
For space reasons, the above interview has been abridged.