Europe longs to back Mideast change, fears chaos

AP News
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Posted: Feb 23, 2011 10:51 AM
Europe longs to back Mideast change, fears chaos

Revolutions hurtling through the Middle East have inspired millions of Europeans, who recall the awe they felt when communist regimes crumbled across the former Soviet bloc. But along with excitement come questions, fears and doubts _ as the flames of revolt shoot up on the continent's very doorstep.

Europe has long seen itself as a champion of democracy, and its ideals are being tested by the real life consequences of democratic change sweeping a region that supplies a great part its immigrant population, one that has become increasingly restive in recent years.

Many fear a flood of refugees hitting European shores, a concern made urgent by the crush of thousands of Tunisians who turned up in Italy after the North African country overthrew its autocrat, and signs that Libya _ long a gateway of illegal emigration to Europe _ is on the verge of implosion.

Questions are also emerging about whether the spirit of revolt might also take root among Europe-based Arabs, who often accuse their host countries of racism and blame the colonial past for many of their woes.

"All of these problems that led to revolutions in the Arab world are also daily life in France and are more and more unbearable," Yacine Djaziri, whose Bondy Blog chronicles life in immigrant-heavy Paris suburbs that exploded in riots in 2005, wrote recently.

"How do we fix it? Do we need to set ourselves on fire? Be resigned? Get angry? Revolt?"

Balanced with fears are calls for hope and solidarity: some European officials on Monday proposed a Marshall Plan for the Middle East, drawing an explicit parallel to the continent's U.S.-funded reconstruction after World War II that testifies to the magnitude of the drama unfolding across the Mediterranean.

But Europeans ask: who's going to pay when they're engulfed in a debt crisis that threatens to darken the future of an entire generation? "Germany pumps enough money into foreign countries already," said Marcel Mueller, 27, who works in the service industry.

Germans can well imagine the burden they might shoulder to help fund a Marshall Plan for the Arab world: 20 years after reunification, they are still charged an extra "solidarity tax" to subsidize reconstruction in the former communist east _ estimated at some euro1.3 billion ($1.78 billion).

European Investment Bank President Philippe Maystadt estimated Tuesday that to support a transition to democracy in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries in the region it would need to lend euro6 billion ($8.2 billion) over the next three years.

Images of boatloads of migrants, mostly from Tunisia, washing up on the tiny Sicilian fishing village of Lampedusa struck many as a harbinger of mass-scale flight to the European Union. The explosion of revolt in Libya _ this time countered by a bloody crackdown _ has compounded fears of a migration crisis.

"It's a problem that worries us all, because the situation spurred many to arrive," said Alberto Brizzi, a waiter at a Rome trattoria. "The people take off thinking that they'll find something better than in their country. But that's not so."

As Tunisians flooded Lampedusa earlier this month, Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, of the anti-immigrant Northern League, stoked fears that terrorists and al-Qaida supporters could have mingled among what he described as a "biblical exodus" of migrants.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has urged leaders to recognize the "unique opportunity right now to promote democracy, human rights and civil liberties in our neighborhood."

But Europe has been struggling for years with its most high-profile project to foster partnership with a neighboring Muslim nation: EU membership negotiations with Turkey, widely viewed as a model of how Islam and democracy can flourish together, have all but fallen apart _ largely due to hostility from Germany and France.

The promise of EU membership was a key factor in Turkey implementing the democratic, judicial and economic reforms that have transformed the nation into an emerging power. Now, with Europe an increasingly distant dream, it has been forging closer ties with Iran, Russia, and others often at odds with the West.

A recent survey by Germany's ARD public broadcaster showed 43 percent of those polled said they are worried about the upheaval in the Middle East, compared with 41 percent who said they feel optimistic, according to the survey of 1,000 Germans. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 1.4 to 3.1 percentage points.

The top fear was instability and chaos, with 47 percent listing it a concern, followed by 25 percent who worried about a stream of migrants hitting Europe's shores, and 21 percent who fear Islamists will take over power.

Last week the European Union promised euro258 million ($347 million) in aid to Tunisia from now until 2013. In Brussels Monday, EU foreign ministers pledged support to "the peoples of the south Mediterranean and their legitimate hopes and aspirations for democratic change, social justice and economic development."

The call for an ambitious reconstruction program, however, comes at a time when EU countries are already smarting from having to bail out both Greece and Ireland from the verge of bankruptcy. Protracted wrangling over those rescues shows how difficult it will be to achieve any meaningful plan for the Middle East.

Experts say Europe is viewing democratic change in the Middle East much more cautiously than the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, naming the threat of Islamic fundamentalism as the continent's "major concern."

"New leaders could take power whose policies would not be favorable to the goals of EU and NATO," said Tomas Karasek, an analyst with the Association for International Affairs in Prague. "This is a major threat."

Other Europeans say the world must embrace a historic opportunity in the Middle East _ regardless of the risks.

"We should make it clear that we are on the same side as the democracy movement," Danish lawmaker Naser Khader said.

"We should not let ourselves be threatened by reports of refugee flows. It is in our interest that North Africa, that the Arab world becomes democratic."

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Associated Press Writers Raf Casert in Brussels, Valentina Chiarini, Alba Tobella, and Frances D'Emilio in Rome, Jan Olsen in Copenhagen, Angela Doland in Paris and Karel Janicek in Prague contributed to this report.