Wary Europe Weighs Palestinian Sea Change

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The European Union had been the Palestinian Authority's biggest financial benefactor. Sylvia Poggioli reports on uncertainty in Europe following the overwhelming victory by Hamas over the ruling Fatah movement in last week's Palestinian elections.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

In London tomorrow, officials from the United States, Europe, Russia, and the United Nations, known as the Middle East Quartet, will meet to discuss the diplomatic consequences of last week's Palestinian election. NPR's senior European correspondent Sylvia Poggioli sent this letter from Europe, where the Hamas victory could undermine the European Union's long-standing Middle Eastern policy.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI reporting:

The headline of an editorial in the French daily, Le Monde, Destabilization, summed up European uncertainties about the future of the political map of the entire Middle East. The Fatah-administered Palestinian authority, and its predecessor, the PLO, were Europe's darlings. Now, Europe feels bereft.

European leaders are united in saying that Hamas must renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist. The European Union's commissioner for external relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said the EU will work with any Palestinian government which commits itself to peaceful methods.

Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, was more cautious. He said the Hamas victory may confront the European Union with an entirely new situation, which will need to be analyzed by EU foreign ministers. The European media was quick to pin partial blame for the Hamas victory close to home. The Viennese Daily Standard singled out the European Union Commission, saying it pumped money into Gaza and Ramallah without insuring the principles of good governance. The Palestinian Authority essentially exists thanks to European funding. The European Union in fact has been the Palestinian Authority's biggest donor. Last year it provided 330 million dollars in addition to contributions from individual countries. But now Europeans realize their largess failed to build a strong civic society. The Italian Daily Corriere De la Sera said Europeans are now in a quandary. From now on, ignoring the power of Hamas ins impossible, the paper said, but to try to bend today's Hamas with the European Union's traditional carrot without a stick diplomacy of negotiations and money could lead to catastrophe.

The Hamas victory has undermined Europe's much touted soft power strategy in the Middle East, promoted as a counterweight to the U.S. led war in Iraq. Every year the EU distributes 3.5 billion dollars in grants and loans. For Morocco in the west, stretching all the way across Arab North Africa to Jordan, making it the largest civilian donor in the region. But it never made demands for political reforms. Stability was the European's main goal. Now the Hamas victory has reinforced European misgivings about the Bush Administration's push for elections to promote democratic change in the Middle East. The defeat of secular and moderate forces in elections in Iran, Iraq, Egypt and now the Palestinian territories, has increased European anxieties that authoritarian regimes in the regions can be replaced with ones that are worse.

With their proximity to the turbulent region and their own large Muslim communities, European countries feel they have more at stake. And Islamization of politics in the Middle East could have a serious spill-over effect and create even more problems in trying to integrate their millions of Muslim immigrants.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.

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