Rising to meet an historic challenge, the European Union should offer its southern neighbours the chance to participate in its single market and join the European Economic Area, which currently includes Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, Enlargement and Neighbourhood Commissioner Štefan Füle told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.
Füle said the Union needed to be "ambitious and creative" with the revolutions unfolding across the Arab World, not least to prevent them from being "stolen" by extremists.
Asked to compare current developments with the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe, he stressed that the key difference was that Eastern Europe countries were actually offered to EU and NATO membership.
This is why the EU is preparing a strategic revision of its neighbourhood policy, he explained, in which the 27-country bloc will be "much clearer" about the end result of its partnerships.
"We have a tremendous responsibility which in no way questions that it is first of all their responsibility, the responsibility of Tunisians, Egyptians and people in other countries, for their reform process. It's not about us instigating revolution here or there or imposing our values. But once they embark on the road of reform I think they should be aware that they will have in us a very solid, coherent [and] helpful partner," Füle said.
The EU's enlargement and neighbourhood policy commissioner said Brussels would "look beyond" current association agreements with the countries from its southern neighbourhood.
"We are ready to embark on economic integration with those countries, in addition to strengthening civil society, supporting their democratic developments, strengthening the democratic institutions and supporting their inclusive and sustainable growth. All of that you could do much better if you engage our neighbours with the idea of gradually creating the kind of European economic area which is working so well in Europe," Füle said.
Regarding the countries to the bloc's east, which are covered by the Eastern Partnership initiative, Füle said that similarly a clearer perspective was required while they engage in painful reforms.
"We need to make absolutely clear to our partners that it is through this initiative and various programmes that they will be able to build more of the European Union inside their countries. And it is through this process that they not only pull their countries closer to the European Union but at a certain time they will be able to put on the table their European aspirations according to Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty," Füle said.
Article 49 says that any European state which respects the EU's values and is committed to promoting them may apply to become a member of the Union.