BRUSSELS — IT has been less than a year since a planeload of European Community leaders responded to the first shots signaling Yugoslavia's breakup and flew off to mediate the conflict, declaring this was "the hour of Europe" - as if the EC alone possessed the formula for defusing the centuries-old Balkan powderkeg.
What a difference 10 months make. As the freshly recognized republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina takes its turn as martyr in the Yugoslav war, the days of EC enthusiasm for its role in a fragile international peace effort are long past.
This week the representative of Lord Carrington, who presides over the EC's eight-month-old Yugoslav peace conference, declared during a visit to the Bosnian republic that negotiations might be suspended if the situation continued to deteriorate.
Earlier this month EC foreign ministers held out the "carrot" of reduced economic sanctions to Serbia to coax it away from pursuing attacks on the ethnically mixed Bosnia. With those overtures unheeded, however, and the United States suggesting harsher measures against Serbia - including breaking off diplomatic relations - some EC officials say Community foreign ministers could "change their tune" and approve tougher sanctions against Serbia at their May 2 meeting.
The change in the Community's attitude toward its role in Yugoslavia has more to do with a loss of naivete than a loss of interest, some observers say. "It's true that Yugoslavia has revealed the Community's limits," an EC official says. "But it's also true, and we've learned once again, that you can't force people to cooperate."
Dealing with Yugoslavia has indeed been a learning experience for the EC.
First, the conflict revealed that the Community is still far from a unified foreign policy. Its current system of "political cooperation" reflects above all the national interests of 12 members.
This became apparent when Germany, largely for domestic political reasons, pushed its EC partners to recognize Croatia and Slovenia last December, faster than some wanted to. Similarly, the EC's foot-dragging on recognizing Macedonia stems from Greece's domestic political considerations.
Second, with its elements of civil conflict and ethnic strife, the Yugoslav war is not readily susceptible to outside mediation. Once it became clear that neither the US nor the United Nations could put an end to the conflict, the EC understood what it was up against.
Finally, the realization that a Balkans war no longer had historic potential for a chain reaction across Europe caused the EC's shift to realism about the conflict. This attitude, observers say, dictates that the EC do what it can - sponsor a peace conference, send observers, implement sanctions against aggressors, and promise economic cooperation with peaceful republics - without getting dragged deeper into the conflict.
"You can knock the Community for being ineffective in Yugoslavia, or you can praise it for what it has done and is doing," says Stanley Crossick, director of the Belmont European Policy Center here. "But years from now two things will be remembered from this period: that Europe didn't break up over this war, but Yugoslavia did."
But when the question is raised of whether the EC did as much as it could to encourage a peaceful outcome, the issue of recognition of the republics' independence comes up.
Those arguing against quick recognition of the republics say it has pushed Serbia, chief protagonist of a preserved Yugoslavia, to view international intervention as anti-Serb, and to adopt a siege mentality.
On the other hand, some experts believe earlier recognition would have preempted some of the violence. Insisting that Yugoslavia stay together, says Martina Boden, a Yugoslavia specialist and an editor of Europa Archiv in Bonn, "only allowed things to fester, [and military] positions to be taken up."
She argues that even earlier recognition of Croatia, when the Serbian minority's nationalism was "not yet stirred up," could have spared that republic months of devastating warfare.
Similarly, she says the EC should have recognized Bosnia's independence right after its pro-independence referendum in early March, instead of waiting a month. "Recognition before the situation deteriorated could have discouraged violence by making clear what the future was going to be," she says.
With the EC planning to evolve toward a truly unified foreign policy over the decade, some observers say it should be able to respond more effectively to this kind of crisis in the future.
"The EC countries are still dealing with strong nationalist sentiments of their own, and varying historical allegiances," Mr. Crossick says. "I think there's relief the Community is proving it can get through this challenge - and some hope that it will be able to do better in five years' time."