by Benedetta Berti and Yoram Schweitzer
On July 22, 2013, during a ministerial meeting on Common Foreign and Security Policy, the Council of the European Union decided to designate Hizbollah’s "military wing" as a terrorist organization.
This means that the 28 countries of the European Union unanimously agreed to add Hizbollah’s military wing to the list of “groups and entities” classified as "terrorist" on the basis of Council Common Position 2001/931/CFSP (CP931) “on the application of specific measures to combat terrorism,” itself based on UN Security Council Resolution 1373 of 2001.
The political process that led the EU to adopt this stance was rather tortuous and involved extensive internal bargaining. Indeed, following the July 2012 terrorist attack in Burgas, Bulgaria, there was a heated debate within the EU on whether there was decisive evidence that the Lebanese Shiite organization was indeed behind the attack, and if so, how to respond to such involvement.
The movement to designate Hizbollah as a terrorist organization, led by the United Kingdom and the Netherlands and backed by the US, gained momentum after the Bulgarian government declared in February 2013 that Hizbollah was indeed behind the Burgas attack. Even though that initial claim was partially retracted by the current Bulgarian government, it decidedly influenced the EU decision to change its policy on Hizbollah. In addition, growing reports of the group’s activities in Europe, as well as the March 2013 conviction of a Lebanese-Swedish dual national arrested in Cyprus in July 2012 on charges of collecting information on Israeli flights and tourists on behalf of Hizbollah contributed to the case against Nasrallah’s group. Hizbollah’s growing military involvement in Syria also helped Europe overcome its reluctance, while internationally, the recent Gulf Cooperation Council decision to designate Hizbollah as a "terrorist organization" and strong American and Israeli pressure also prompted the EU to bridge its internal divisions over this issue.
The debate on the matter was long and heated, as until this decision neither the EU nor individual member states included Hizbollah on their lists of terrorist organizations. The exception was the Netherlands, where Hizbollah has been classified as a terrorist organization since 2004. (Outside of the EU, Bahrain, Canada, Israel, and the United States have adopted the same position.) For several EU member countries, adopting this approach appeared too confrontational, with experts worrying about the broader impact on Lebanon, and especially the risk of destabilizing it further by labeling Hizbollah a terrorist group. Moreover, countries like Italy, Spain, or Ireland, whose troops are part of the UNIFIL contingent, feared that antagonizing Hizbollah would increase direct risks to their deployed personnel in Lebanon. Finally, designating Hizbollah as a terrorist organization risked creating problems in dealing with the Lebanese government, of which Hizbollah is a member.
To bypass these concerns and create the necessary consensus, the EU decided to adopt the United Kingdom’s approach (shared by Australia and New Zealand), distinguishing between Hizbollah’s military and political wings, blacklisting the former while recognizing the latter. From here emerged the EU's largely fictitious yet politically convenient division between the Hizbollah’s "political" and "military" branches.
From an organizational standpoint, attempting to separate between the military and the political core in a group so well-integrated and with such strong internal command and control makes little sense. Yet from a political point of view, the only way to get the 28 EU members to agree on the designation of Hizbollah was to “soften the blow” and adopt the UK approach. The desire to reconcile the need to send a strong political signal against Hizbollah while falling short of creating a radical change in EU policy with respect to Lebanon was voiced clearly by EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton: “Due to concerns over the role of Hizbollah, we have agreed to designate its Military Wing on the list of terrorist organizations. That does not prevent the continuation of dialogue with all political parties in Lebanon.”
What are the practical implications of the cautious EU formulation? The designation of Hizbollah should be read as a strong political statement against Hizbollah’s growing regional activism, and specifically against its role in Syria. In this sense, labeling Hizbollah as a terrorist organization helps weaken the group’s political legitimacy and international standing, both of which are highly valued by the organization.
And indeed, not surprisingly Hizbollah’s reaction has been extremely antagonistic. Over the years the group has emphasized on numerous occasions that it considers itself radically different from terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda, reiterating both that its military activities are only focused against Israel, while systematically denying involvement in international terrorism, including the Burgas attack. Hizbollah declared its firm rejection of the EU move, adding that it was "unjust" and "aggressive" and the result of the EU surrendering to Israeli and American pressure. In the months preceding the EU vote, the group had also spent significant political capital lobbying against the measure. For example, in a notoriously over-dramatic statement released in August 2012, Hizbollah Secretary General Nasrallah declared that designating Hizbollah “would dry up the sources of finance, end moral, political and material support” for the group.
Does the decision do more than simply "naming and shaming" Hizbollah? The answer is mixed. Technically the EU will be able to freeze assets and ban money transfers to individuals, groups, and entities deemed affiliated with Hizbollah’s armed wing. Also, under CP931 EU, members will be bound to engage in judicial and police cooperation to target individuals and entities connected to the group’s military apparatus, and banks and other financial institutions are similarly bound to cooperate. However, the devil here is in the details: in order for the EU to implement any asset freezes or transfer bans, it will be necessary to demonstrate that the suspect funds are designated specifically for Hizbollah’s military wing and not its social or political services. This creates substantial practical obstacles to the operational implementation of the decision. Furthermore, designating Hizbollah’s military wing should not have any negative effect on the EU’s capacity to meet and interact with Hizbollah members (CP931 does not prohibit such exchanges), nor should it affect the organization’s members freedom of travel.
Even though more details are needed (for example, the EU’s official motivation for designating Hizbollah has not yet been published), the EU’s labeling of Hizbollah’s military wing does not constitute a watershed event for either the EU or Hizbollah. Still, for Nasrallah’s organization and for its Iranian partners, this decision sends a strong political signal regarding the EU’s growing impatience toward Hizbollah's international terror activities of recent years, and even more so, its blatant involvement in Syria in support of the Assad regime.