There is a saying in Lebanon that translates from Arabic as “put your head with the big head and you grow; put it with the small head and you shrink”. In other words, always go to the top man and work with the most influential or most powerful people.
I was thinking about this adage when trying to pick my way through the pros and cons of Britain remaining in the European Union before Thursday’s referendum on the matter. The United Kingdom is the fifth-biggest economy in the world and the second-biggest of the EU’s overall net contributors. It is a “big head”. And as such it has cast-iron reasons – sovereign, economic and security – for leaving. The trouble is that there are equally compelling and obvious arguments for remaining a big fish in a united European pond. Campaigning on both sides has been relentless and at times witheringly confusing.
Last week, I was in Denmark – the fourth biggest net contributor by population – where the locals will on the one hand admit that yes, the EU regulations are irritating, and yes, the spectre of immigration makes them jittery, but they also like being part of an economic trading club with all the attendant benefits. They look at non-member Norway and think: “Too much trouble. There are plenty of other people we can work with”.
On the plane back to London Gatwick, I dwelt on the fanciful notion of how EU membership would benefit a small country such as Lebanon. It wasn’t a totally bonkers exercise. Cyprus is a member – remember the 2013 US$13.9 billion EU/IMF bailout? – and is only 240 kilometres off the Lebanese coast, while Turkey, which juts deep into western Asia, is a “candidate country”, itching for a piece of the EU action.
The EU has close ties with Lebanon. It is its biggest trading partner and maintains a delegation in Beirut. It was no doubt established to handle bilateral relations on trade, but these days it has its hands full trying to work with the Lebanese government on the Syrian refugee crisis. Elsewhere, Lebanon signed an association agreement with the EU in early 2002; this was followed up in 2007 with something called the EU-Lebanon action plan, designed to give “a new impetus to bilateral relations”.
Both years heralded periods of considerable economic growth. In 2002, after the September 11 attacks, Beirut with its newly built Downtown became a magnet for Arab tourists, while in 2007 Lebanon needed all the help it could get after the 2006 war between Hizbollah and Israel and the next four years held record economic growth before Syria broke up the party.
Lebanon is also part of the Union of the Mediterranean, a quixotic grouping of 43 countries – “28 EU members and 15 Mediterranean partner countries from North Africa, the Middle East and south-east Europe” – whose mandate is to promote “stability and prosperity” throughout the region by “discussing regional strategic issues based on the principles of shared ownership, shared decision-making and shared responsibility between the two shores of the Mediterranean”.
On paper, Lebanon could be a brilliant member, planting the EU flag at the gateway of the Near East. A boutique nation with a solid banking system and 4 million highly educated, cosmopolitan and multilingual people poised to complement Europe’s multinational workforce with financiers, doctors, engineers, administrators, secretaries, waiters and barmen.
Then as the plane started its descent into Gatwick, I remembered last Sunday’s bomb blast at the Blom Bank headquarters in the Verdun district of West Beirut. No one was hurt and no claimed responsibility for the attack, but it was widely assumed to be a message from Hizbollah to the Lebanese banking system, and in particular the Central Bank, that the party would not sit by as the sector complied with US requests to impose financial sanctions against the Iranian-backed party, which includes closing accounts of individuals and institutions with links to the party.
You see, if every Lebanese had the chance to move freely across the EU’s borders to seek work and a forge better way of life, the country would be empty in record time.
At least we can still talk to the “big heads”.
Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton