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Austria FM: EU wants to help Lebanon but wants reforms

Austria's foreign minister said Wednesday that the European Union wants to help Lebanon escape its economic meltdown, but only if the country's leaders clean up Beirut's affairs.

Alexander Schallenberg told reporters after meeting his Lebanese counterpart in Beirut that Lebanon should reach a deal with the International Monetary Fund, move forward with the investigation into the August 2020 port blast and restructure the hard-hit banking sector.

Lebanon's economic crisis, which started in 2019, is rooted in decades of corruption and mismanagement by the small country's political class.

Bickering between rival groups has so far prevented economic reforms demanded by the international community in order to release billions of dollars of investments.

"I can assure you that Austria will always continue to stand on the side of the Lebanese people," Schallenberg said.

Lebanon's economic crisis has been described by the World Bank as one of the world's worst since the 1850s.

Tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs since October 2019 and the Lebanese pound lost more than 90% of its value.

That leaves nearly 80% of the population of six million, including one million Syrian refugees, in poverty.

Amid the crisis, Lebanon's government has not met since Oct. 12.

Schallenberg said that the "political and economic elite" in Lebanon are "the only ones who can get this country and the people out of the mess."

Lebanon's Foreign Minister Abdallah Bouhabib said the government is working on reforms, including in the corruption-riddled electricity sector.

Bouhabib added that he hopes that Beirut will reach a deal with the IMF by the end of February.

The Austrian foreign minister said his country will continue to help Syrian refugees in Lebanon, with the eventual goal of returning them to their country.

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