The European Union’s (EU) decision last week to designate Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organisation has been followed by collective back-slapping between its members, the US and Israel. This is odd, given that the move is largely symbolic and will have little, if any, tangible effect on the Lebanese group.
The details have yet to be worked out, but the designation is reportedly likely to mean travel bans and asset freezes against members of Hezbollah’s military wing. Its political arm will not be targeted. The EU move “will have a significant impact on Hezbollah’s ability to operate freely in Europe,” said US Secretary of State John Kerry.
However, its military wing has never operated freely in Europe because it has never needed to, focusing its activities where they are most relevant — in Lebanon and the wider Middle East. Hezbollah denies involvement in last year’s attack against Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, which — along with its direct intervention in the Syrian conflict — contributed to last week’s EU decision.
It will be very difficult for member states to implement, given the extreme secrecy under which Hezbollah’s military operates, the limited contacts between the group and the EU, Hezbollah’s negligible presence and activities on the continent and the fact that the movement does not formally divide itself into armed and political wings. This last point will mean that the EU will have to walk a tightrope, confronting Hezbollah’s military activities, while not hindering (inadvertently or otherwise) the group’s myriad civilian projects — such as charities, schools, hospitals, orphanages and reconstruction — on which much of the Lebanese population relies.
EU member states have said its move will not harm relations with the Lebanese government, which includes Hezbollah. However, condemnation from Beirut has been swift. President Michel Sulaiman described Hezbollah as “an essential component of Lebanese society” and urged the EU to “re-examine its decision”.
Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour called the designation “hasty,” adding that it “will hinder Lebanese political life in the future, especially considering our sensitivities in Lebanon. We need to tighten bonds among Lebanese parties, rather than create additional problems”.
Even Hezbollah’s traditional political opponents in Lebanon have voiced criticism. “This unfortunately is going to affect all the Lebanese people,” said Sami Gemayel of the Phalange parliamentary bloc.
If one of the EU’s aims was to increase domestic pressure on Hezbollah, it seems to have backfired. The same can be said if another aim was to directly pressure the movement to change course, given its wholly predictable, vociferous condemnation of the EU.
The designation may even be seen as something of a victory for the group. Simply agreeing to blacklist its military wing was anything but simple. It took months of wrangling between EU member states, some of whom — such as Austria, Ireland and Italy — were concerned about the potentially destabilising effects on Lebanon, as well as their peacekeepers in the country.
Designating Hezbollah in its entirety as a terrorist organisation — as pushed for by the US and Israel — would have never achieved the unanimity required to make it a EU policy. Agreeing on the specifics of implementation might also be fraught with hurdles and may end up being watered down to overcome divisions.
In any case, despite angering the Lebanese government, the EU decision is unlikely to cause a serious rift. The bloc is Lebanon’s largest trading partner and donor and a significant provider of peacekeepers. Beirut will not want to jeopardise that.
Prior to last week, Hezbollah had already been designated as a terrorist group in its entirety by the US, Israel, Canada and the Netherlands and its military was already labelled as such by Britain. None of this seems to have affected its operations, because its principal backers — the regimes in Iran and Syria — are still unwavering in their support and it enjoys strong popularity among Lebanon’s Shiites, one of the country’s largest sects.
As such, do not expect the EU’s decision to affect Hezbollah in any significant way. Perhaps, behind closed doors, even the Union does not entertain such hopes. Symbolism may have been the whole point — giving the perception of doing something about Hezbollah’s role in Syria, without actually doing much at all.
Sharif Al Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs.