BY moving toward a more tightly coordinated military presence in the Gulf and addressing in concert the problem of thousands of Western ``hostages'' in Iraq and Kuwait, the 12 countries of the European Community have enhanced the weight of Europe in the Gulf crisis and on the international scene. But it was clear from a meeting of the Western European Union (WEU) that the emergence of a united Europe with a defense and security dimension is likely to continue by small steps. West Germany, touted as Europe's emerging superpower, is sitting on the military sidelines, while Britain is operating closely in line with the United States.
One small step, however, was taken at an Aug. 21 meeting called by France of the WEU, an all-European defense alliance that groups nine of the EC's 12 members. The union decided to closely coordinate the European military presence in the crisis zone by establishing an ad-hoc group of defense and diplomatic officials.
The coordination will include ships and other support already sent to the Gulf by France and Britain to enforce United Nations sanctions against Iraq. Italy, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Greece also agreed at the WEU meeting to commit ships or other material to the joint effort.
``It was of the greatest importance that Europeans express their solidarity'' in the Gulf crisis, said French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas. ``With this meeting, we have achieved that.''
European Community foreign ministers, in a separate meeting here, issued a warning against ill treatment of EC citizens being held by Iraq, and took a firm stand against Iraqi calls to close embassies in Kuwait by Aug. 24.
European countries will maintain their diplomatic missions in Kuwait, despite Iraqi threats to treat any embassy personnel as private citizens beginning Aug. 25. The EC ministers said the mistreatment of a citizen of any EC country would be considered an offense against the EC and that they would hold individual Iraqi citizens ``at all levels'' responsible for actions against EC citizens.
The ministers also decided to offer EC financial assistance to countries, most urgently Turkey and Jordan, that will be harmed by participation in sanctions against Iraq.
French officials said the WEU meeting was an opportunity to demonstrate ``a coordinated effort on the level of Europe.'' Although the defense organization did coordinate the European mine-sweeping effort in the Gulf in 1987-88, it has been largely eclipsed by NATO for decades.
The invitation of EC members who are not WEU members - Denmark, Greece, and Ireland - plus Turkey, to participate in the meeting and subsequent meetings of the ad-hoc coordinating team, reinforces the WEU's European dimension, officials said. (Ireland declined the invitation because of its neutrality).
``This time our mandate is much clearer, and of course this time our adversary is not simply a matter of mines,'' said WEU Secretary-General Willem van Eekelen. The former Netherlands defense minister said the meeting constituted an important step for Europe, although he acknowledged that coordinating the military efforts of long-sovereign nations would not come easily or quickly.
``I would have liked this meeting to take place sooner,'' he said, referring to the two-week lapse between the beginning of the Gulf crisis and the European moves toward coordination. But any earlier attempts at military coordination probably would not have been successful, he said.
Still, West Germany's failure to join its European neighbors in the Gulf effort remains a clear element of disappointment. The Germans, embroiled in controversy over exactly what their Constitution allows in the way of military action, are at least for the immediate future sticking with an interpretation that prohibits any military deployment outside of NATO countries.
In Brussels, EC Commission President Jacques Delors hailed the WEU meeting, and the organization itself, as ``one of the possible paths for accomplishing a common policy of security and defense.''
A common policy, however, still appears a ways off. Responding to criticism that Europe had for two weeks been largely absent from the Gulf crisis, French President Fran,cois Mitterrand said at a press conference Aug. 21 that it was ``curious that something should be considered existent that we are only now in the midst of building.''
The EC countries are making ``progress'' in defense and security coordination, he added, ``progress that should continue in December,'' when EC countries meet to consider institutional changes to strengthen their political integration.