The Beirut tragedy must push Europe even further to tackle Hezbollah head on

The continent needs to have a rethink on how to protect its interests amid the collapse of the militia-controlled Lebanese state

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Like an oil tanker, European security policies take a long time to turn from the established and settled course. When it comes to the European Union's stance on Hezbollah, the change is suddenly under way. The steering wheel has spun in a new direction, with the security threat to EU member states having spurred a rethink.

The fundamental shift on Hezbollah spotlights a terror group engaged in activities posing threats to life and more.

While always acknowledging the group's ties to terror, the European capitals had once sought to make a distinction with a wider political movement. Over time the dividing line dissolved as the tentacles of its network spread.

Hezbollah has grown organised criminal activities with an extensive presence in country after country. Money laundering and the smuggling of illicit goods are fundamental to its coffers. The group also exerts control across a series of religious and community centres for the diaspora in European cities.

For decades, lawmakers had been able to exercise what the German think tank analyst Eckart Woertz called a “Solomonic solution” on Hezbollah, referring to a Biblical story in which King Solomon is required to rule between two women both claiming to be the mother of a child. Solomon does not make the ultimate choice but offers the unpalatable option of dividing the child in two. Thus Hezbollah was treated by Europe as having two parts

European countries were willing to proscribe the “military” wing of Hezbollah but not its other operations. However, the specific formulation is no longer holding. What's worse from its standpoint, the wider landscape in which the group – which was set by Iranian agents to promote its revolutionary ideology in the 1980s – operates has changed utterly.

The explosion that wrecked the heart of Beirut last week is certain to resonate against Hezbollah in Europe's halls of power. In part, it is a culminating event that brings together a whole set of charges against the organisation and lays these at its feet. Indeed, the blast in Beirut calls into question decades of European policies towards its near neighbours.

In the aftermath of the migration surge in 2015 from ISIS-held Iraq and Syria, the continent had already lost confidence in the stability of the neighbourhood. The distance imposed by the Mediterranean Sea was for a long time an effective cordon sanitaire. No longer. The sea basin is an active source of dangers from its eastern to its western tip.

The former colonial powers, such as France vis-a-vis Lebanon, struggle to keep pace with each twist in the spiral downwards. Other countries, such as Germany, seek but fail to keep Greece and Turkey away from the edge of conflict.

The collapse of the Lebanese state, in which Hezbollah holds the whip hand as a political force, is certain to accelerate Europe’s rethinking of how it protects its interests.

When Europe had the luxury of detachment from day-to-day politics, it was able to devise its own policy on Hezbollah. A political and diplomatic argument was made that banning it would destabilise the Lebanese political settlement. Whatever credibility that idea possessed was long gone, even before last week's events at the port controlled by the group.

Britain moved to ban it in its entirety at the start of this year, putting a cap on the sea change in the climate facing the group. The Dutch had already done so. Austria's main political parties united behind a joint resolution demanding “effective action against Hezbollah” and “terrorist and criminal activities”.

Austria also began prosecution of a kingpin who had lived near its southern borders for decades for money laundering and terror financing activities.

Germany brought in its own ban a few months ago, and within hours, hundreds of police officers were searing the mosques and associations affiliated with the Iran-backed movement. The treasure trove of documents seized has triggered investigations that prosecutors expect to see in the courts in the coming months.

In just the city of Hamburg the local intelligence believes there are 30 institutions under Hezbollah's control. The associations send millions of euros to the organisation and its leadership every year. Nationwide, the German intelligence believes there are at least 1,050 Hezbollah operatives scattered around the country.

The Washington Institute, a US-based think tank, last week warned that Hezbollah was stockpiling an arsenal of arms depots around Europe. It released an exhaustive interactive map of the group's involvement in organised crime, drug running, smuggling, money laundering and much more over almost four decades.

One of the components of the map is a US Department of State report titled "Select Europe-based Operational Activity" by Hezbollah. It detailed in May 2015 an event with haunting overtones following the tragedy in Beirut. The Cypriot authorities arrested Hussein Bassam Abdallah, a Lebanese-Canadian Hezbollah operative, who had stored 420 boxes of ammonium nitrate, the very material that ignited in the Beirut explosion. He was sentenced to three years in prison. Three years earlier another operative was accused of renting storage space for the same material but he fled Cyprus.

Keeping a lid on Hezbollah while seeking to promote European influence in the near abroad was already an impossible task. Last week showed how irresponsible it was not to tackle this group head on.

Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief of The National