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8TH EULEBANON ASSOCIATION COUNCIL’S MEETING HIGHLIGHTS STRONG PARTNERSHIP

The eighth session of the Association Council of the European Union and Lebanon took place in Brussels on 18 July 2017. The session was formally chaired by Gebran Bassil, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants of Lebanon. Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, led the EU delegation.

The session confirmed the strong partnership between the European Union and Lebanon and the solid diplomatic relationship that has been established over the years. The EU underscored the importance of promoting Lebanon's example of a pluralistic and democratic society based on the values of freedom of belief and opinion. The EU and Lebanon see mutual benefit in working together to address global challenges such as the fight against terrorism and climate change. The Association Council confirmed that the EU and Lebanon share similar views on many key regional issues and agree on the need to find political solutions to the crises affecting the region. A just, comprehensive and lasting peace in the Middle East remains a priority for the EU and Lebanon, as well as finding political solutions to the different crises in the region, particularly in Syria.

The EU commended Lebanon for the important recent achievements including the election of President Aoun in October 2016, the formation of a new government led by Prime Minister Hariri in December 2016 and the endorsement of a new electoral law by Parliament on 16 June 2016 on the basis of which parliamentary elections will take place by May 2018. The Association Council confirmed the EU's readiness to support Lebanon in preparing and holding fair, transparent and inclusive elections, including through the deployment of an EU Election Observation Mission once officially requested.

The EU and Lebanon reviewed the outcome of the Brussels Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region of 5 April. They reiterated their full support to UN initiatives in view of a political solution to the Syria conflict as the only way ahead. The EU and Lebanon also reviewed the mutual commitments agreed and contained in the Lebanon Output Document agreed at the Brussels Conference, and the EU reiterated its support for the Lebanese vision for stabilisation and development expressed in the conference.

The EU fully acknowledged Lebanon's role in contributing to global public welfare in hosting around 1.5 million refugees. Recognising the impact of the Syria crisis on Lebanon and the country's extraordinary and exceptional effort in hosting more than 1 million Syrian refugees registered by UNHCR, which makes Lebanon the country with the highest number of refugees per square km and per capita in the world, the EU confirmed its willingness to maintain the level of support allocated for 2016-17 in 2018 and committed to a similar level for 2019.

The EU and Lebanon agreed that the only sustainable long term solution for refugees and displaced from Syria into Lebanon is their safe return to their country of origin, as conditions for such a return are met.

In this regard, both sides are however mindful to the imperative of building conditions for the safe return of refugees from Syria and displaced Syrians, including during the transition, in accordance with all norms of international humanitarian law and taking into account the interests of the host countries.

The EU indicated that it has allocated more than EUR 1.2 billion in Lebanon since the start of the Syria crisis, across different instruments. The support includes bilateral aid to Lebanon as well as assistance addressing the impact of the Syrian crisis and which has benefited both host communities and the refugee population, for instance in the areas of healthcare, education and infrastructure. The EU confirmed that it will continue to apply the different tools at its disposal in support of Lebanon's economic development plans, and where appropriate consider new tools as the Government of Lebanon elaborates its vision presented at the Brussels conference last April, and presents its comprehensive multi-annual capital investment programme addressing development needs in all sectors. Lebanon confirmed it would continue in its efforts, with EU and International Community support, to ensure better living conditions for refugees and displaced from Syria, and in particular in upholding the principle of "non-refoulement" and access to livelihoods, while underscoring that enhancing their living conditions during their temporary stay in Lebanon should come in the broader context of improving the economic resilience of the country as a whole through foreign and local investments in job creation projects, infrastructure and local economic development.

While addressing the most urgent challenges, including migration and terrorism, Lebanon and the EU agreed to continue to pursue the core objectives of their long term partnership, which is working towards sustainable Lebanese and regional stability, where the EU will engage actively with the Lebanese authorities and uphold dialogue with all political parties, sustaining economic growth through strong state institutions and the revitalisation of the Lebanese economy, also by leveraging the potential of the Lebanese private sector and civil society.

The EU and Lebanon discussed the implementation of the Partnership Priorities and EU-Lebanon Compact adopted in November 2016 and confirmed their ambition to intensify dialogue on issues of mutual interest and cooperate across inter-related areas from counter-terrorism to fostering growth and job creation, in particular for women and youth, strengthening the rule of law and democratic governance and working on migration and mobility.

The Association Council recognised the challenging impact of the Syrian crisis on the Lebanese economy. The EU and Lebanon agreed to identify efficient and concrete ways of boosting EU-Lebanon trade - including through helping Lebanon exploiting preferential access to EU markets, and to work on viable options for improving that access. In this regard, Lebanon submitted concrete requests aiming at enhancing market access for a preliminary list of Lebanese products, which the EU will consider thoroughly, and Lebanon will continue to feed in the list, including new requests in the area of services. Lebanon also agreed to support the EU compromise package aiming to update the Pan-Euromed Convention on Rules of Origin. In order to provide faster assistance to the Lebanese economy in particular in the context of the Syria conflict, the EU will examine with Member States an early bilateral application of these updated rules with Lebanon on a reciprocal basis. If agreed, this should give Lebanese exporters a more immediate relaxation on all products. The Association Council was updated on the work of the Joint Working Group on trade and investment (JWG) established between the two sides, and expressed its full support for its objectives, called on the JWG to intensify its efforts, and expressed its readiness to provide needed assistance in this regard. The Association Council also agreed that the use of innovative financial vehicles, notably through concessional funding mechanisms, such as the European External Investment Plan, should be made efficiently and coherently with Lebanon's national investment plan once adopted. Lebanon confirmed its willingness to implement structural reforms to instigate growth, improve the business climate, attract more investment and modernise the economy.

The Association Council also welcomed Lebanon becoming an EBRD member.

The Association Council welcomed the constructive counterterrorism dialogue and the progress made in the implementation of initiatives in this field, especially the high-level meetings to develop a national counterterrorism strategy. The EU reaffirmed its commitment to provide further support to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and other state security and justice institutions, as the sole providers of stability, order and security in the country while stressing the importance of abiding by international human rights law.

The EU expressed its strong commitment to the sovereignty, territorial integrity and stability of Lebanon. The EU and Lebanon reiterated their full support to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), including its maritime component, whose deployment is crucial to maintain stability and security in southern Lebanon. The EU also commended the deployment of the LAF across Lebanon, and called for continued assistance to LAF to allow it to continue performing its mandate and commended the crucial role of LAF in fighting terrorism, maintaining security across the country and cooperating with UNIFIL.

The Association Council also noted the importance of student, staff and researcher exchanges, including through the Erasmus+ programme and the eTwinning scheme. The Association Council welcomed the forthcoming participation of Lebanon in the Partnership on Research and Innovation in the Mediterranean Area (PRIMA).This partnership is an example of how research and innovation can contribute to tackling issues (such as food production and water management) of shared concern in the Mediterranean area by joining different stakeholders and leveraging national budgets. The EU also welcomed the signature by Lebanon of the Paris Agreement on climate change in April 2016.

The EU and Lebanon exchanged views on ways of enhancing the protection of human rights and promoting good governance; they agreed to pursue regular dialogue. The EU warmly welcomed the progress made in the setting up of a National Commission on Human Rights and the establishment of a National Preventive Mechanism to fight torture as well as the creation of specific ministries for human rights, women's affairs and anti-corruption within the government, and offered support to ensure the new bodies and ministries can fulfil their functions in line with their mandates and the expectations of the Lebanese people.

The Association Council also agreed to pursue the discussions towards the signature of a Mobility Partnership.

Source: National News Agency