Angelina Eichhorst, the European Union’s Ambassador to Lebanon, is well aware of the challenges of mustering international support for the country and changing dynamics in the region. She took the top job in Beirut in January 2011 after six years at the EU’s embassies in Jordan and Syria, and several years in Cairo at the beginning of her career. Heading the efforts of an organization that has tripled its funding and provided over $338 million to date in humanitarian aid and other mechanisms to support Lebanon with the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis, she also helps to coordinate the actions of the 28 European member states in the country.
Yet, as she explained to Executive, she is deeply concerned that the crisis is not adequately understood. “I spoke to so many people in France, in Belgium, in the Netherlands,” she says. “People would say, ‘Oh really? A quarter of the population is refugees? Is it really that bad?’”
For Eichhorst, this issue of awareness is key. She denies that the West is forgetting about Lebanon, but says the scale of the issue is difficult to convey to distant capitals. “The needs are mindboggling. We have to make a double, triple, quadruple effort to explain this.”
Reinforcing the support
To this end, the ambassador firmly welcomed the formation of the International Support Group (ISG) for Lebanon back in September 2013. The high level nature of the attendance at last month’s Paris conference — which united some big names from the diplomatic circuit such as US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov among others — was particularly striking. “That’s a strong message, which gives us the space on the ground to continue to work with everybody across our institutions, to say, ‘Hey, remember we made this commitment?’”
Yet she also maintains that, rather than being a sudden shift in international consciousness, the ISG reinforces pre-existing support for Lebanon. “I don’t see it as a start. I see it as a continuation of a lot of events and efforts in Lebanon,” alluding particularly to the various support conferences that followed the destruction of the 2006 war with Israel. However, where the ISG breaks new ground is in bringing together such a wide range of international actors, from the Arab League to the EU itself. “As far as we are concerned as the EU, we would like to see everyone around the table. This is a first step.”
But Iran is not there. Questioned about the absence of this major player at the discussions, the ambassador reiterates the current EU rhetoric of openness toward the Islamic Republic. “I think Iran should always be around the table,” she says. “This is our EU policy; it’s very important to have Iran around the table.” Yet despite the mandate given to Eichhorst’s boss — EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton — to discuss the nuclear issue with Tehran, she remained guarded as to whether there could be an Iranian presence at future ISG events. “We have not moved, as yet, into discussing any of the other issues. Things will come step by step.”
A drop in the ocean?
“Step by step” could also aptly characterize Eichhorst’s attitude toward the development of the European and international response in Lebanon. Regarding the latter, she hopes that the consensus behind the ISG will pave the way for more concrete action. “There is the issue of awareness,” she says, “but with this comes the issue of mobilization. [The awareness] should then translate into more joint efforts to not just say that we want to save Lebanon but to do something to save it.”
European efforts in this regard are spread out across the range of policy areas. EU member states unanimously back the strengthening of the Lebanese military, while some provide training for the armed forces inside Lebanon, according to Eichhorst. The EU has pledged $187 million for the humanitarian response, while over $150 million has been channelled to help Lebanese state structures cope with the crisis.
Meeting on the day in which the EU pledged a further $37 million to support Lebanese infrastructure, the obvious question was whether all these sums aren’t merely a drop in the ocean compared to a crisis that the World Bank estimates will have hurt the Lebanese economy to the tune of $7.5 billion by the end of 2014. Here she accepts a partial disconnect between the level of international support and the scale of the crisis, but stresses her commitment to ongoing finance. “We are squeezing the institutions to get one extra euro out of them,” she jokes, wringing an imaginary dishcloth in her hands.
More fundamentally, however, critics have accused the EU of having made dialogue in Lebanon more difficult with their decision to blacklist Hezbollah’s military wing in July last year. Eichhorst is reticent to recover old ground. Sceptics at the time pointed out that the split between military and political/social wings is one that Hezbollah itself does not recognize and could therefore be meaningless. Rather than discuss the justification for the distinction, Eichhorst merely says, “We made that distinction at the time and we still make that distinction.”
Soul-searching on Syria
On the broader issue of the Syrian civil war, Eichhorst again senses a lack of awareness in some international capitals. “‘It’s this thing [over there]. It’s far away from us,’ even though geographically and politically, Syria is on the fringes of Europe; these are our neighbours.” Syria, like Lebanon, is a partner country of the EU’s Neighborhood Policy — a foreign relations initiative launched by Brussels a decade ago to create tighter links between Europe and its periphery, suggesting that these are not just empty words.
Eichorst is a master in avoiding being drawn into accusations. Time and again she politely sidesteps direct questions about whether the western world has failed Syria and Lebanon and instead reverts to diplomat speak. When asked whether she would agree that people on the street in Lebanon feel that the international community has forgotten them, she takes it to a new level of obtuse generalization. “There’s so much disenchantment across the board, for different reasons.” She does concede, however, that as the Syrian civil war enters its fourth year, Western actors are now “in a situation where we definitely need to ask ourselves, ‘What are we doing?’
A positive spin
But as to what the international community — and the EU in particular — is doing in Lebanon, Eichhorst displays no such confusion. Indeed, she maintains a positive outlook. Beyond the continued aid and development funding, she remains committed to across-the-board dialogue, including with the ‘political wing’ of Hezbollah, as well as to some more surprising areas.
Even in a time of acute crisis, she says, culture is a key factor. “Culture is inclusive; it brings everybody around the table and protects the values of freedom and energy.” Eichhorst’s ever-present smile makes it difficult to discern whether her optimism in a time of regional upheaval and dire economic prognostics is naïve, visionary or just good diplomacy. Hopefully, this positive thinking inspires her international counterparts to follow suit.