Much ink has already been spilled over Europe’s awkward response to the Arab revolutions: we have been told that its support for dictators has led it to disregard popular demands for freedom, that its approach is solely concerned with immigration and terrorism, that it is intent on closing the door on North Africa when it should be offering help, and that it is incapable of defining and clearly expressing a common position… In short, Europe has been roundly criticised for missing out on a historic opportunity to react positively to events that are of worldwide importance.

In the interest of fairness, we should bear in mind that the European Council has adopted “restrictive measures in view of the situation in Libya,” and it is not the only power whose reaction has been marked by hesitation and a lack of incisiveness: to wit, the timid response from the United States. At the same time, European diplomats in Brussels, New York and Tripoli — and more recently in Cairo and Tunis — are hard at work in the drive to resolve a critical situation that has to be approached with foresight and caution. But the fact remains that Europe has yet to demonstrate that it has the capacity to ‘act’ — rather than ‘simply react’ — to dramatic developments in a region with which it has maintained close links since ancient times.

In the coming week, which may prove to be a turning point, national leaders are to meet in Brussels for an extraordinary meeting of the European Council devoted to Libya on 11 March. Governments across Europe, are examining the case for military and humanitarian aid, but the exercise of either of these options will not obviate the need for a long-term political and economic strategy to develop the Euro-Mediterranean region.

The Libyan summit is to be followed by another crucial meeting on the future of the single European currency. At the event, which will be restricted to the 17 leaders of Eurozone countries, discussions will focus on the strengthening of Europe’s Stability Fund and the Competitiveness Pact proposed by France and Germany, at a time when rumours of a Portuguese bailout are ever more insistent. Final decisions on these issues are expected to be announced at the European Council meeting of 25 March.

In his thesis, which was published 80 years ago, Belgian historian Henri Pirenne argued that "Charlemagne could not have existed without Muhammad." That is to say that without the spread of Islamic power on most of the shores of the Mediterranean, post-Roman Europe would never have been forced to develop new internal trade routes, forge new political alliances or relocate its centre of power to northern Europe. In short, the fact that it was driven back from the Mediterranean played a key role in enabling the King of the Franks to establish a Holy Roman Empire based in Germany.

Today, at a time when North Africa is rocked by dramatic political upheavals, the European Union is once again in the process of redefining its economic, monetary and fiscal mechanisms — two phenomena that are independent but also closely linked. Unlike Charlemagne, the current generation of European leaders cannot afford to turn their backs on the Mediterranean, but must come to terms with the inevitable integration of Arab countries in a global society and economy where Europe is increasingly marginalised. Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy have virtually no chance of convincing their partners to accept their Competitiveness Pact, but all of Europe’s leaders will nonetheless have to determine measures and means to extricate the EU from the vulnerability and uncertainty that has paralysed it for more than a year.

On 11 March, they will have to find a solution to strengthen Europe’s economy, restore confidence in its single currency and outline more ambitious international policies.

Translated from the French by Mark McGovern