Shock explosion in Beirut shows how the unpredictable will challenge Europe

Europe Letter: Europe faces instability on its borders as regional rivalries focus on Libya

The vast explosion that devastated the city of Beirut was felt as far away as Cyprus. But the psychological impact of the blast will be felt even further still.

The Lebanese capital has symbolic importance across the Mediterranean and Middle East far exceeding its modest size. It is still looked to by many as their Paris, and a place where, for all its faults, life can be lived with a little bit more freedom.

This matters deeply in a region in which millions live under the same burdens of poverty, corruption and oppression that drove the string of revolutions that gripped the world a decade ago. Since then the grasp of autocratic leaders desperate never to see a repeat has tightened, often with the tacit assent of European leaders for whom the overriding priorities are predictability and the co-operation of local forces to prevent migration.

World leaders were quick to pledge support to Lebanon in the wake of the disaster. This reflects genuine shock and desire to help, as well as pragmatic interest in preventing the country collapsing under the strain of the disaster on top of the pandemic and a devastating economic crisis that hasd already crippled the country.

Russia announced it would send planes of humanitarian aid, as did Egypt. The European Union offered its Copernicus satellite mapping technology to help local emergency responders navigate the devastated cityscape, and began to co-ordinate member states to send firefighters and search dogs. Offers even came from Israel, with which Lebanon is still technically at war.

But perhaps the most striking announcement came from France. Within hours of the disaster, a plane of Marseille navy firefighters and equipment was in the air, and president Emmanuel Macron announced he would shortly be following them himself.

The presence of the French leader is a significant statement both of France’s ties with its former protectorate, and its ambitions to continue to project its influence as a geopolitical power.

The powers offering aid to Lebanon are familiar players in a deepening rift over resources and influence in the Mediterranean.

In recent months the stand-off has been focused on Libya, which has been blighted by instability and warring factions since the Nato-backed overthrow of its eccentric dictator Muammar Gadafy in 2011.

For years the European Union’s priorities in the country had been largely limited to paying its coast guard to stop boats of migrants crossing the Mediterranean.

Backdoor support

Here's why that changed, in a nutshell. Russia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates supported an attempt by rogue general and hopeful autocrat Khalifa Haftar to replace the official interim government. France, though it denies it, offered backdoor support too.

This prompted Turkey to intervene on the side of the government. Ankara successfully turned the tide against Haftar, and is now using its presence to solidify influence and further its ambitions to tap gas reserves in the Mediterranean.

That got the attention of Brussels. Suddenly it faced a major new front in its rivalry with Turkey, a power with which it is in constant contention over its pursuit of gas reserves off Cyprus, and control of migration flows through Bulgaria and Greece.

The current European Commission has the self-stated aim of being "geopolitical", in the sense of exerting influence and pursuing its interests in the world. It is unclear whether the clashing interests of member states, as well as their dubious commitment to the idea, will allow for this.

The funding the EU uses to support and influence external states has been repeatedly cut in recent budgets. In the deal reached last month between EU governments, a proposed €5.5 billion for spending in the bloc’s “neighbourhood” was axed altogether.

Some influential voices within the EU are looking for alternatives. The former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt, and the EU foreign affairs chief's special adviser Nathalie Tocci, are among the figures who have aired proposals for the bloc to deploy "boots on the ground" in Libya. Both acknowledged the proposal would struggle to gain the required support, but suggested resurrecting the bloc's mothballed rapid-intervention "battlegroups" was needed to realise EU power in the world.

This week, the crisis is an explosion, which early reports indicate was caused by the unsafe storage of a stockpile of the chemical ammonium nitrate. The consequences in a state that is a perennial theatre for conflict, and already mired in economic turmoil, are unpredictable.

Pandemics too have a track record in shaping the course of history. Covid-19 has loaded onto fragile states a challenge that they may not be able to deal with. Underlying conditions resemble the situation prior to the so-called Arab Spring, with the main differences being that those who want change are perhaps more desperate and bitter, and the region is now more militarised.

This week is a taste of the unpredictability that may lie ahead along Europe’s Mediterranean edge, and the difficulty the bloc is likely to have in dealing with it.