BERLIN – A discussion is under way within the EU about possibly listing Hezbollah as a terrorist group, Austria’s Foreign Ministry informed The Jerusalem Post on Saturday.

Austria appears to be the first EU country to acknowledge that that the 27- member body has begun a process to designate the Lebanese Shi’ite group as a terrorist organization.

Spokesman Alexander Schallenberg, a seasoned Austrian diplomat, couched the process with caveats. “A possible listing of the entire Hezbollah within the EU as a terror organization must consider various political aspects,” he wrote.

He noted that Hezbollah is not only represented in Lebanon’s parliament but is part of its government, with two ministers in the cabinet.

“A listing of the Hezbollah could, therefore, have immediate effects on the security of the country and the stability of the government,” Schallenberg continued.

He noted that Lebanon President Michel Suleiman seeks to create a “national dialogue” in his country, with the goal of, for example, integrating Hezbollah’s fighters and weapons into the state’s security forces. Schallenberg said that the EU has up until now clearly supported Suleiman’s efforts.

He stressed that it is important that the EU find a “joint position, especially in light of the situation in Syria.”

News organizations reported that Hezbollah’s militias joined forces with Syria’s regime to suppress the Syrian rebellion.

The division among EU countries revolves around whether to designate the entire Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, or just parts of it.

Michel Malherbe, a spokesman for the Belgium Foreign Ministry, told the Post on Thursday: “We believe that it could make sense, instead of qualifying Hezbollah as a whole, to isolate armed subgroups, or individuals. This method has proven its merits, and deserves a try.”

Critics of this approach (treating armed wings separately from political branches) point to a statement from Hezbollah’s No. 2 leader, Naim Qassem, who said in 2009: “Hezbollah has a single leadership,” and “All political, social and jihad work is tied to the decisions of this leadership.”

Qassem added, “The same leadership that directs the parliamentary and government work also leads jihad actions in the struggle against Israel.”

The United Kingdom classifies Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organization, but recognizes its political wing as a legitimate political party. The Netherlands designated Hezbollah as whole to be a terrorist group. Both Dutch and British foreign ministers have urged their EU counterparts to place Hezbollah on the EU terror list.

Jacek Biegala, a spokesman for the Polish Embassy in Germany, told the Post last week that “Warsaw represents the opinion that in the case of a ban of Hezbollah it is very important that the European Union has a joint position.” What “is crucial” to an application to ban Hezbollah is the reasoning of the argument, he added.

Pekka Marttila, from the Finnish Foreign Ministry, wrote the Post by email on Friday, “At the moment Finland has no national system that would list terrorists or terrorist organizations.

Instead, as a member of the European Union, Finland agrees and implements the EU Council decisions in this regard.”

When asked if Finland supports a ban of Hezbollah, Marttila declined to respond.

Asked about the presence of Hezbollah members in Austria, Karl-Heinz Grundböck, a spokesman for the Austrian Interior Ministry , referred the Post to a report from the country’s domestic intelligence service.

According to the 2012 report, the Turkish Hezbollah group, which consists of non-Lebanese Kurds, is listed as a terrorist organization, and was “able to expand its structures in Europe and in Austria.” The Turkish Hezbollah group is aligned with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

When questioned about the presence of Lebanese Hezbollah members in Austria, Grundböck said Austria’s intelligence agency (Verfassungsschutz) cannot provide information beyond what is stated in its report.

In late October, John O. Brennan, counterterrorism chief for US President Barack Obama’s administration, slammed the Europeans for their failure to outlaw Hezbollah. “Let me be clear” that European opposition to a ban “makes it harder to defend our countries and protect our citizens,” Brennan said, speaking in Dublin •

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