The shift by two of Europe’s leading nations may tilt the balance in the 27-member bloc, which has been divided over the issue.
It comes amid growing evidence that, in its stepped-up terror activity around the world, the Lebanese Shi’ite group has not steered clear of Europe – even though Lebanese Shia communities there have been identified as a key source of funding.
Last February a Bulgarian investigation concluded that Hezbollah members were behind a bus bombing there last July in which a Bulgarian national and five Israeli tourists were killed.
Then in March, a court in Cyprus convicted a Hezbollah member with dual Lebanese-Swedish nationality of planning attacks against Israeli tourists. During his trial, Hossam Taleb Yaacoub admitted having also undertaken courier-type tasks for Hezbollah in France and the Netherlands, traveling on a Swedish passport.
All of those countries – Bulgaria, Cyprus, France, the Netherlands and Sweden – are members of the E.U., and U.S. officials at the time of the conviction expressed the hope that the revelations would spur the E.U. to act.
The German foreign ministry said on Wednesday Germany had been in discussions on the matter with other E.U. states since the Bulgarian terror attack, and attributed its decision to information received from the Cypriot government.
It said Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle supported designating “at least the military wing” of Hezbollah as a terrorist group.
France, meanwhile, linked its reversal in part to Hezbollah’s increasingly significant support for the Assad regime in Syria.
“Because of the decisions that have been taken by Hezbollah and the fact that they are fighting very harshly the Syrian population, we have decided to ask that the military branch of the Hezbollah would be considered as a terrorist organization,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters Wednesday in Jordan, where he had taken part in a meeting of the U.S. and 10 other countries supportive of the Syrian opposition.
“Many of us European countries are on this line and my guess is that it will be a decision that will be taken by Europe,” he said.
Until now, the Netherlands alone among E.U. members has designated Hezbollah as an entity as a terrorist organization. Britain – drawing a distinction between the group’s political and social welfare activities in Lebanon and its violent activities abroad – listed its “armed wing” in 2008.
Britain’s foreign office earlier this week signaled a new diplomatic push for “a robust, collective E.U. position” on Hezbollah.
A chief reason given in the past by some European governments for not acting against Hezbollah was that doing so could destabilize Lebanon’s government, in which the Shi’ite group plays a prominent role.
The U.S. does not draw a distinction between Hezbollah “wings,” State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell reaffirmed on Wednesday.
“We don’t distinguish as the United States government between the political and military or terrorist wings of Hezbollah,” he said. “And that’s based on our careful review of all the information that indicates that Hezbollah’s numerous branches and subsidiaries share a common funding, common personnel and leadership, which all support the group’s violent activity.”