Austrian FM: EU ready to help Lebanon if leaders reform

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Abdallah Bouhabib, Alexander Schallenberg

Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah Bouhabib, right, shakes hands with his Austrian counterpart Alexander Schallenberg, in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022. Schallenberg said Wednesday that the European Union wants to help Lebanon get out of its economic meltdown but that can only happen when the country starts implementing badly needed reforms. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

BEIRUT (AP) — Austria’s foreign minister said Wednesday that the European Union wants to help Lebanon escape its economic meltdown, but only if the country’s leaders clean up Beirut’s affairs.

Alexander Schallenberg told reporters after meeting his Lebanese counterpart in Beirut that Lebanon should reach a deal with the International Monetary Fund, move forward with the investigation into the August 2020 port blast and restructure the hard-hit banking sector.

Lebanon’s economic crisis, which started in 2019, is rooted in decades of corruption and mismanagement by the small country’s political class. Bickering between rival groups has so far prevented economic reforms demanded by the international community in order to release billions of dollars of investments.

“Frankly we are very concerned about what is going on in the country,” Schallenberg said. “Our message is, help us to help you.”

“Austria will continue to stand on the side of the Lebanese people but what we want to see is action on the side of Lebanon,” he said.

Lebanon’s economic crisis has been described by the World Bank as one of the world’s worst since the 1850s. Tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs since October 2019 and the Lebanese pound lost more than 90% of its value. That leaves nearly 80% of the population of 6 million, including 1 million Syrian refugees, in poverty.

Amid the crisis, Lebanon’s government has not met since Oct. 12. The powerful Hezbollah and its allied Amal group of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri have demanded that the judge leading the investigation into the port blast be removed. The Aug. 4, 2020, explosion in the center Beirut killed more than 200 people.

“The solutions are in the hand of the leaders of this county,” Schallenberg said, adding, “they’re the only ones who can get this country and the people out of this.”

Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Abdallah Bouhabib said the government is working on reforms, including in the corruption-riddled electricity sector. Bouhabib added that he hopes that Beirut will reach a deal with the IMF by the end of February.

Schallenberg said that there has to be a deal between Lebanon and the IMF, “in order for us as a European Union to give economic assistance.”

Later Wednesday, Schallenberg met President Michel Aoun who told the Austrian official that there is “good will” for talks with the IMF in order to push Lebanon beyond the crisis.

The Austrian foreign minister said his country will continue to help Syrian refugees in Lebanon, with the eventual goal of returning them to their country.

Schallenberg also visited Austrian peacekeepers deployed in southern Lebanon near the border with Israel.

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