The resistance of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi to accepting either the moral or the practical logic of his situation, holed up in Tripoli and with more than half of his country (measured by population) in opposition hands, should surprise no one. During his more than 40 years in power in Libya he has never shown either a strong moral or practical instinct, except for preserving his own power.

Nevertheless, the long-term surprise that will occur because of the events in Egypt, Tunisia and now Libya is one that casts us far into the future. It is the consequence for the European Union of the now possible, even likely, spread of a democratic revolution across a wide swathe of North Africa and the Middle East. We should be patient in assessing how far that revolution will go, just as we were in the first months after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. But also, like then, it will pay to plan and think ahead.

The evolution of the EU has consisted of a series of ideas that seemed far-fetched when they were first proposed but which later came to seem inevitable. The next such idea is likely to be the expansion of the EU to encompass the southern coast of the Mediterranean. No one now expects such a development; given that France, Germany and several other EU countries cannot even accept the idea of membership for Turkey, which is already a democracy.

EU membership for some North African countries?

But think back to the early 1990s: it quickly became clear that Western Europe had a huge interest in fostering the stability, friendliness and economic development of its neighbouring former Soviet satellites, which it did in a long, slow process that culminated in full EU membership for ten of them well over a decade later. Not all the former Soviet satellites became democracies, and not all have now joined the EU. The same will probably apply in North Africa and the Middle East.

Still, just think about the parallels between the fall of the Soviet Union, in the EU’s eastern borderlands, and the fall of Arab dictatorships on the southern coast of the Mediterranean. As after 1989, the huge interest and historic opportunity that today’s Arab awakening offers to Europe will become clearer and clearer, in the next months and years, for both good and ill.

America has tricky military issues in the region, and will be held responsible for what does, or doesn’t, happen in Palestine. Europe, as after 1989, mainly has economic and cultural links to offer, which are more positive. European countries are already the biggest trading partners for most North African states; Italy is a leader in its oil and gas links with Libya and Algeria for example. The logic of those links, along with fears of instability and mass migration, can point in only one long-term direction: membership of the EU of some sort for some North African countries.

We have something very valuable to offer

More likely than full membership, as we understand it today, is a new sort of union in which there are several forms of membership. That is already true today, with only some of the 27 EU members being part of the euro, or of the Schengen passport-free zone. So a new formula will need to be found to offer economic integration, including eventual open trading access and the single market, to democratic countries in North Africa, probably stopping short of full free movement of labour. All this will mean that the European Union itself will have to again change its name: it can become the European and Mediterranean Union.

Without such a proposal, such a long-term vision, what will Europe have to offer the new North African democracies, as and when they emerge? A little aid, and a few university places: that is all. Yet, as after the Berlin Wall fell, we have something very valuable to offer, as an incentive for democratic reform: the chance to join us.

It sounds difficult, even before you start to mention Islam. Don’t forget, however, that this development would also make economic and political sense for Europe. Mediterranean, in its Latin root, means middle of the earth, after all, not some kind of southern frontier or barrier. It was the centre of our world for centuries. It is part of Europe’s neighbourhood.

These extracts from Bill Emmot's article are the copyright of La Stampa, 2011.