EU offers Lebanon 1 billion euros in economic, security support

BEIRUT (Reuters) -The European Union has offered Lebanon a financial package of 1 billion euros ($1.07 billion) to support its faltering economy and its security forces, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Thursday during a visit to Beirut.

Von der Leyen said the package would help bolster basic services, including health and education, though she added it was crucial for Beirut to "take forward economic, financial and banking reforms" to revitalise the business environment and banking sector.

Speaking alongside Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides, she said support to the Lebanese army and other security agencies would be focused on providing training, equipment and infrastructure to improve border management.

Lebanon's economy began to unravel in 2019 after decades of profligate spending and corruption. However, vested interests in the ruling elite have stalled financial reforms that would grant Lebanon access to a $3 billion aid package from the International Monetary Fund.

As the crisis has been allowed to fester, most Lebanese have been locked out of their bank savings, the local currency has collapsed and public institutions - from schools to the army - have struggled to keep functioning.

In parallel, Lebanon has seen a rise in migrant boats taking off from its shores and heading to Europe – with nearby Cyprus and increasingly Italy, too, as the main destinations, researchers say. Both Syrians and Lebanese are on board.

Both Von der Leyen and Christodoulides said they hoped Lebanon would conclude a "working arrangement" with Frontex, the EU's border agency.

Lebanon is home to hundreds of thousands of Syrians fleeing the conflict in their homeland since 2011. Echoing other Lebanese officials, Mikati said on Thursday they were further straining Lebanon's collapsed economy and that most of Syria was now safe enough for them to go back.

But the United Nations says Syria is still too dangerous for displaced nationals to return. Last year, Syrians were still being arrested or conscripted when they were being forcibly returned by Lebanese authorities.

Christodoulides said the protracted presence of Syrians in Lebanon needed to be addressed.

"Let me be clear, the current situation is not sustainable for Lebanon, it's not sustainable for Cyprus and it's not sustainable for the European Union. It hasn't been sustainable for years," he told reporters.

($1 = 0.9341 euros)

(Reporting by Maya Gebeily in Beirut, and Bart Meijer and Charlotte Van Campenhout in Brussels;Editing by Peter Graff, Gareth Jones and Alison Williams)