The European Union's ambassador to Lebanon Friday joined the rising chorus of voices denouncing the lack of female representation in the new Cabinet.
“The fact that I can only refer to him or his, is really disheartening,” Angelina Eichhorst, told The Daily Star Friday in an interview at EU headquarters in Beirut.
“We have a Cabinet of 30 men, while Lebanon has so much to offer in terms of professional and ambitious women who are actively involved in public life. I feel that if you want to have the strong connection between the government and the citizens you have to have women – not just one woman – in the Cabinet. I have been very outspoken about this.”
Eichhorst raised her concerns with Prime Minister Najib Mikati during a meeting earlier Friday which was held to discuss the new March 8-dominated government, which was announced this week after almost five months of political deadlock.
The new Cabinet is now drafting a policy statement, which is expected in the coming weeks, and must be presented to Parliament before the new line-up can be finalized.
“The EU welcomed the formation of the government, the decision itself, because we have already been asking for five months for a government to be formed, for the simple reason that there are many reform issues on the table, key questions that need to be addressed, socio-economically and politically,” said Eichhorst.
However, “We have to see where it comes now, how the ministerial declaration will be presented, what are the priorities and the reaction by parliament … this is an internal process and as such we do not interfere …” she added.
The EU, alongside the U.S. and U.N., has publicly called on Lebanon to abide by its international obligations, especially those pertaining to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 summer war with Israel and calls for the disarming of all non-state actors.
“We would like Lebanon to stay a [trusted] member of the international community. This is the biggest concern for the moment,” said Eichhorst, while adding that Mikati has pledged to keep channels “very open.”
Leading Hezbollah figures issued separate statements Thursday, saying that the new government was a victory for national groups and a defeat for Washington, insisting the era of U.S. influence had come to a close.
But Eichhorst maintains the EU will not be roused by such rhetoric despite Hezbollah's leading role within the March 8 alliance.
“Many statements have come out after the government formation from different sides but it is very important that we give this process time,” said Eichhorst. “For those that are working extremely hard to get to an agreement, they do not wish to react to this and that statement.”
Instead, addressing key sectors such as education and service provision must be prioritized, with Eichhorst particularly advocating for more decentralization to empower local communities and for greater electoral reform to help Lebanon break the “cycle of political boom and bust.”
“The key issues for Mikati for the moment, apart from the package of international obligations, are socio-economic reforms,” said Eichhorst.
Mikati understands the country's economic priorities and mechanisms to spur growth, she explained.
Lebanon is the second biggest recipient of EU aid per capita after the Palestinian Authority, receiving in excess of $316 million in loans and grants each year.
The EU announced in May an additional $1.75 billion boost in its aid budget for 2011-2013, on top of the $8.2 billion already earmarked, with the extra money allocated for neighboring countries willing to undergo democratization reforms.
But whether Lebanon, considered one of the region's more open countries, will receive a larger share of assistance remains uncertain. While it may “potentially” receive some of the funding, prioritizing job creation should feature more prominently on the agenda, Eichhorst said.
Trust has to be kept up in the economy and trade and investment pursued more forcibly, Eichhorst added, while pledging to keep up EU support to small and medium businesses.
Unlike the U.S., where key lawmakers have threatened to cut off all aid following the announcement of the Cabinet, Eichhorst insists halting financial help “is not on the table” for now.
Recent security incidents, especially the attack on U.N. peacekeepers in the south of the country and the kidnapping of seven Estonian tourists in the Bekaa, “are both extremely worrying for us,” but the EU “does not assess this as being particularly targeting Europeans.”
“The security situation is volatile but that is not really very new in Lebanon. For the moment … we continue to operate as we are,” said Eichhorst, who also added that the delegation was not taking extra precautionary measures in light of recent revelations that two Dutch diplomats had been temporary kidnapped in the Bekaa.