BEIRUT: Prime Minister Najib Mikati arrived in Paris Thursday for crucial talks with President Emmanuel Macron aimed at seeking French and international assistance to help Lebanon overcome its deepening economic and financial crisis.
Mikati’s visit to France, his first foreign trip as Lebanon’s prime minister, comes amid reports that Macron would ask Mikati for a timetable from the Lebanese government to implement essential reforms as a condition for the international community to release billions of dollars in promised aid to the crises and debt-ridden country.
A member of Mikati’s three-member parliamentary bloc said France would play “a major role” in securing international assistance to support the new government in Lebanon.
“France through Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s visit will follow up on the initiative it started a year ago to rescue Lebanon,” MP Ali Darwish told a local radio station. “France will play a major role with regard to [securing] international assistance to support the new government,” he said.
In discussing the Lebanese government’s reform measures, Macron will ask Mikati for a timetable for implementing reforms, MTV channel said in a report from Paris quoting French sources. It added that France and the international community would also have a role in following up on the government’s plans to enact reforms stipulated in the French initiative designed to save Lebanon from an economic depression, the worst since the 1975-90 Civil War.
Despite France’s tensions with the United States over a submarine deal with Australia, Macron spared time to invite Mikati for talks over a business lunch at the Elysee Palace Friday. Macron’s gesture underlined France’s determination to resolve Lebanon’s multiple crises and pull its former colony out of an unprecedented economic meltdown that has propelled more than 70 percent of the country’s 6 million population into poverty amid a crashing currency that has lost more than 90 percent of its value since late 2019.
Besides thanking Macron for his role in helping in the formation of the new government and in organizing donor conferences for Lebanon since last year’s Beirut Port explosion, a political source told The Daily Star Wednesday that Mikati would seek to rally “French and international support to help Lebanon overcome its dire economic and financial crisis.”
The source said Mikati’s meeting with Macron was also aimed at reviving the implementation of the CEDRE conference’s decisions that would enable Lebanon to obtain some of the $11 billion in grants and soft loans promised by donors during the conference hosted by France in 2018. Mikati also wants the CEDRE aid to go alongside the expected negotiations between Lebanon and the International Monetary Fund on a bailout package.
The source said Macron was expected to urge Mikati to implement the required reforms in the shortest possible time and revive negotiations with the IMF in order to make it easy for Lebanon to obtain international assistance.
Macron, whose country has emerged as a power broker in Lebanon since last year’s massive Beirut Port explosion, was the first foreign leader to welcome the formation of a new government in Lebanon, stressing that it was vital that Lebanese politicians stuck to engagements necessary to undertake key reforms.
Both the US and France have welcomed the formation of a new government in Lebanon, but urged it to quickly undertake essential reforms in order for the international community to come forth with its promised aid to the cash-strapped country. The European Union has also urged Lebanon's new government to move quickly to adopt reforms that would pave the way for a deal with the IMF halt the country's economic collapse.
US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea met Thursday with Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib, discussing bilateral relations, the demarcation of the Lebanon-Israel maritime borders, supporting the Lebanese Army and Lebanon’s expected negotiations with the IMF, the state-run National News Agency said.
Previous governments, riven by political rifts, had failed to implement reforms recommended by the CEDRE conference designed to rally financial support for Lebanon. The reforms are deemed essential to unlocking over $11 billion in grants and soft loans pledged by international donors at the CEDRE conference to stimulate the stagnant economy and finance key infrastructure projects that the Lebanese government outlined in its Capital Investment Program.
The new government faces a host of daunting challenges that begin with halting the country’s economic collapse, embarking on key reforms, resolving the severe fuel and medicine shortages and end with supervising next year’s parliamentary elections. This is in addition to restoring confidence between the people and the state and also with the international community, which has linked its financial aid to implementing structural reforms.
Darwish, the MP in Mikati’s bloc, said the Arab world, including Gulf states, which have dithered from extending financial aid to Lebanon over Hezbollah’s growing influence, would soon come to the country’s rescue. “The Arab world, including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, will soon act to support Lebanon,” he said.
In a speech reading out the government’s policy statement this week, Mikati pledged to strengthen Lebanon’s relations with Arab countries, strained in past years mainly over Hezbollah’s influence in the country.
Saudi Arabia, which wields great influence in Lebanon, has not yet commented on Mikati’s government nearly two weeks after its formation.
In April, Saudi Arabia banned imports of fruits and vegetables from Lebanon, linking the measure to an increase in drug smuggling. The Saudi measure came at a time when Beirut’s ties with Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states have been strained due to what these states perceive as “Hezbollah’s growing influence” in Lebanon. The strain has prompted Gulf states to dither on supporting Lebanon financially. Gulf states have long channeled funds into Lebanon's ailing economy but they are alarmed by the influence of Hezbollah, a powerful group backed by their archrival Iran.