On Monday, the foreign ministers of the 28 European Union member states agreed unanimously to place the military wing of Hezbollah on the EU’s list of terrorist organizations. This agreement has been heralded as a diplomatic triumph for the UK, which led a process that saw a decisive breakthrough with the acquiescence of France and Germany in May this year. The US and Israel have been important backers of the EU’s decision, and so has the Netherlands—three states that list the whole Hezbollah movement as a terrorist organization.
Two incidents have been put forward as the main justifications for this decision. The most visible was the bus bombing in Bulgaria in July 2012 that killed five Israeli tourists and their driver. Hezbollah has been implicated in the subsequent investigation conducted by Bulgarian authorities in collaboration with Europol and other international partners. The second justification is the four-year jail sentence handed down by a Cypriot court to a Hezbollah member accused of planning to attack Israeli targets on the island.
European allies underscore Hezbollah’s actions in Bulgaria and Cyprus, but the timing and context of the EU’s pronouncement only confirms what is already well known: the Shi’a group’s involvement in the Syrian conflict in support of President Bashar Al-Assad weighed in the EU’s choice. When France’s position on the matter became public, a spokesman for the French foreign ministry said Hezbollah had broken the consensus that existed among Lebanese political parties on non-involvement in Syria’s civil war.
The move has been criticized as inconsequential. The planned crackdown by European law enforcement agencies on Hezbollah’s European operations, including fundraising, will face a very a loose and informal global network. Hezbollah’s military activities are also highly secretive: their fighters often hide their identity and affiliation.
It is also seen as ambiguous due the distinction it makes between the political and military wings of Hezbollah and the difficulty of separating one from the other. Hassan Nasrallah himself has rejected the existence of such a divide within the organization. And in an interview with the German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel, Ibrahim Moussawi, Hezbollah’s spokesman, said that “Hezbollah is a single large organization, we have no wings that are separate from one another.” He added, “What’s being said in Brussels doesn’t exist for us.”
The distinction, however, has the clear purpose of leaving open the official channels of communication between the EU and its member states and Hezbollah’s leadership. This is important from the Europeans’ perspective, and indicates that European decision-makers understand Hezbollah has become the dominant force in Lebanese politics and the key determinant in the stability or instability of the country. It also shows that Europe’s leadership is cognizant of concerns regarding the safety of the UN Interim Forces (UNIFIL) deployed in South Lebanon, an area that borders Israel and is controlled by Hezbollah. In fact, this concern has been one of the key factors behind the traditional European cautiousness to sanction the group.
The consequences of the EU’s decision are unpredictable, but it seems unlikely it will have any significant destabilizing effect within Lebanon. It is relatively consensual among Lebanese political factions that to give credit to such a decision will only contribute to a further radicalization of Lebanese politics. Various key political figures in Lebanon, including the president, Michel Suleiman, and the acting prime minister, Najib Miqati, have been vocal in their objections.
But despite the apparently innocuous nature of the EU’s move, one has to look at the symbolic level when interpreting the EU’s decision, because it sends messages in several directions. Importantly, it constitutes a warning to Hezbollah regarding their decisive involvement in the Syrian conflict in support of a leader that is seen in Europe as an illegitimate and bloody dictator.
Just a week before Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration, it sends a message to the new Iranian president. As an indirect condemnation of the Iranian sponsorship of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria and firmness ahead of a possible round of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, it is a sign to the new Iranian leadership that rhetoric alone will not be enough to change the equation.
It also pleases the US, the key European ally, and it calms the waters with Israel just a week after the EU issued guidelines banning the financing and cooperation with Israeli institutions in all territories seized during the 1967 war. In doing so, it has smoothed the way for US secretary of state John Kerry’s efforts to revive the peace talks.
How much do these messages matter? They probably do not matter enough to alter things on the ground, but they are certainly enough to generate strong reactions from all those they were directed at.