Much like most things in the European Union, the question of designating Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist organization is a thicket of conflicting political interests, bundled in opaque and sometimes burdensome bureaucratic mechanisms, all branded in the EU’s usual – laudable, inspiring, but often feeble – value-based discourse. While there is no doubt that Hezbollah, as one entity – inseparable between its military and political wings – is a terrorist enterprise, for the EU this has been an open and protracted question for nearly 20 years. Aside for the important milestone in 2013 – when, on the heels of the deadly bus bombing in Burgas, Bulgaria, the EU decided to add the so-called military wing of Hezbollah to its terrorist list, there have only been few notable developments.
The recent decision – dating April 30th, 2020 – by Germany to join the Netherlands (2004) and the UK (2019) in banning all of Hezbollah, comes only shortly before the country assumes the presidency of the European Union, as well as the unanimous resolution in Austria’s parliament calling on their government to follow suit, must represent a vigorous new push in this slow, uphill struggle to take on the group. So what are the challenges and the processes to be triggered, if this is to become realistic?
Oh, the bureaucracy!
Listing individuals or entities as terrorist, which in practice means being subject to a series of restrictive measures, is a consensus process in the EU – i.e., it must be agreed upon by the 27 member states – a single country opposing listing is enough to block the whole process. Not only that, it is an 8-step procedure, with long built-in review slots, which involves nomination by a member state, consultations, recommendations, clarification periods and only then, a decision by the EU Council – the body that brings the member states together.
What’s more: the definition of what constitutes terrorism is itself disputed, and while a common text exists (under Common Position 2001/931/CFSP), this serves only as a guideline. This is reflective of competences in matters of security: while the EU has increasingly tried to synchronize policy on foreign affairs, defense and counter-terrorism – the issues remain still largely decided at the national level.
This is to say that, beyond the merits of the conversation itself and the inevitable political battles, the process too is no walk in the park.
Oh, the politics!
Many of the political considerations impeding stronger action against Hezbollah have been constant and long-lasting, while those that led to progress were rather the result of circumstance and bursts in advocacy efforts.
France, with its strong cultural and historical ties with the Lebanese Republic, has long been a major player in the anti-designation camp, based on the long-standing view that action against Hezbollah would contribute to further destabilize Lebanon, particularly now at a time when the country is struggling with a sovereign debt crisis and up until the pandemic, engulfed in large-scale protests.
This has reinforced the general discourse among EU foreign policy circles – that Hezbollah, as part of the ruling coalition in Lebanon’s government and together with its front as a “social” actor, is somehow instrumental to Lebanese stability, and that, on balance, it’s worth keeping ties with the organization in order to maintain communication channels open.
Proponents of this view, alongside France, include for instance Belgium and the Scandinavian countries. While this narrative remains steadily in place, it was certainly disrupted by the aforementioned July 2012 terrorist attack in Burgas, Bulgaria, in which Hezbollah operatives blew up a bus of over 40 passengers, leaving 6 dead: 5 Israeli tourists and the local bus driver.
The Burgas attack – a turning point
It took a terrorist attack on EU soil to trigger serious discussions about designation. Regrettably, what came out of this was a half-measure: artificially and nominally splitting Hezbollah into political and military wings and only labelling the latter a terrorist organization. This is of course a distinction without a difference – it is well documented that these two wings overlap and answer to the same command structure; Hezbollah itself does not regard its two alleged wings as separate entities. But what’s perhaps more noteworthy is that the EU countries now most in favor of maintaining the status quo were themselves the ones opposing this distinction prior to the 2012 attack. At the time, they were doing so to oppose a ban of any kind – even the limited one in place today – but I submit that their argument about a lack of substantive difference should stand.
Implications of the Syrian conflict
The turmoil in the Middle East makes it nearly impossible to speak about Hezbollah without touching on broader conflicts. Early into the Syrian civil war, the EU was reluctant to target Hezbollah, hoping to temper its operations in Syria on the side of the Assad regime. However, this failed and the atmosphere in Brussels started shifting, with mounting support for sanctioning Hezbollah one way or another.
The attack in Burgas was simultaneous to this changing approach. And while publicly, the partial designation came as a direct result of the attack, the developments in Syria were certainly a contributing factor.
The partial ban doesn’t do nearly enough to help
There is a clear dissonance in the EU’s approach between the short-term effects of not upsetting Hezbollah and its coalition partners and the long-term effects of continuing to lend legitimacy to a murderous paramilitary organization which continues to be the main source of instability in Lebanon.
Last September, the U.N. Special Tribunal for Lebanon indicted Hezbollah member Salim Jamil Ayyash of three bombings targeting Lebanese politicians. The tribunal is expected to pronounce judgment shortly on an earlier case against Ayyash, and four other Hezbollah fighters for orchestrating the bombing that killed Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others and wounded 220 passers-by in 2005.
In addition, Hezbollah has continued in the past year to exert influence on Lebanese politics by questionable means, including assaulting demonstrators in Beirut and setting fire to their tents, intimidating and censoring journalists and buying votes. This is all in addition to its documented terrorist and organized crime activities abroad, including in the EU.
A Secure Europe in a Better World
A Secure Europe in a Better World – this is the objective and motto of the European Security Strategy of 2003. It was the first time, following 9/11, that the EU put forward a comprehensive plan to address its security needs. It promised to do so – in EU spirit – “based on our core values”.
In an increasingly polarized and tense international arena, the EU has positioned itself as one of the main moral, value-based actors. Yet its weak and politicized action – or rather inaction – has fallen short of this worthwhile objective. The calls to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization are dismissed as hawkish or even biased and avoided by some of the key national-level actors. While enough support for a ban could in the long run theoretically be garnered from certain member-states, the mobilization of the EU’s oldest, largest members – strong democracies that shape the discourse of the EU – is essential, if the criteria is one of core values.
This should particularly be the case since the EU-Lebanon partnership priorities for 2016-2020 pledge to work with Lebanon to promote the shared values of democracy and the rule of law.
It’s worth remembering that one of the leading voices in 2013, following the Burgas attack, to ban Hezbollah entirely came from then-Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Frans Timmermans, of the Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, a champion of progressive politics. His example, back then, ought to be followed.
The EU has, since 2003 and the adoption of the European Security Strategy, taken important steps in the fight against terrorism – from appointing a Counter-Terrorism Coordinator and reinforcing the Crisis Coordination Arrangements and the Civil Protection Mechanism, to increased data sharing with the US and other international actors. Yet without the political will to tackle the issues, we are not harnessing the full potential of these tools. The upcoming months are essential in maximizing the capital of the important decisions at the national level in Germany and Austria, and the EU must be sure to make use of the momentum.
Alina Bricman is the Director of EU Affairs at B’nai B’rith International. She formerly served as president of the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS) from 2017 to 2019 and worked for the Representation of the European Commission in Romania and for the Median Research Centre, a Romanian civil society NGO focused on civil engagement and combating xenophobia. She studied political science at the National School of Political and Administrative Studies in Bucharest and at the Central European University in Budapest.