ACROSS Europe, people are wondering if the first major casualty of the Gulf conflict isn't Europe itself. What is being questioned is the dream - which many had thought was becoming reality - of the European Community as a single, powerful political force.
After a six-month crisis following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait that saw European countries running in various, often even divergent directions, the prevailing judgment in foreign ministries, the European Parliament, and media editorial offices is that ``Europe was absent.''
Many are concerned that this failure to develop a common Gulf strategy could undermine Europe's prospects for increasing political integration.
In December, the 12-nation EC launched two treaty-revision intergovernmental conferences, one of which is focused on political union. Steps toward a common foreign policy is one of its goals; some European leaders had even talked about opening the way to an eventual common defense and security ``structure.''
The sobering experience of Europe's Gulf-related performance, many Europeans say, only emphasizes how far off, if not simply unrealistic, those goals are.
One of the bluntest sumups came, not surprisingly, from British Prime Minister John Major last week. Commenting on the ``considerable disparity'' among individual European countries in their Gulf response, he said: ``Political union and a common foreign and security policy in Europe would have to go beyond statements and extend to action. Clearly, Europe is not ready for that, and we should not be too ambitious when it comes to the intergovernmental conferences.''
But even Euro-enthusiast Jacques Delors, president of the EC's Executive Commission, said in an annual address to the European Parliament: ``To be brutally honest, public opinion sensed that Europe was rather ineffectual.''
If the community fails to ``shoulder [its] responsibilities,'' he adds, ``I fear that the European dream will inevitably fade, even if we do succeed in creating the world's largest organized economic area.''
Many analysts see very little inclination among Europeans, outside of the British and French, toward an international political role beyond Europe.
Some observers conclude from the past six months that European countries will simply continue pursuing individual national interests. But others believe the experience will serve as a ``cold shower,'' awakening Europeans to the realization that they will remain secondary world players, subordinate to the United States, unless they forge a true political union.
``The lesson for Europe must be that we've come to the end of the road for independent defense and security policies,'' says Peter Ludlow, director of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels. The EC, he says, must take the opportunity of the political union conference to ``analyze why we did so poorly'' and take steps to improve coordination.
``The events of the Gulf should inject a realistic element in the debate on political union,'' says Angelika Volle, a senior research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations.
Europe has legitimate international interests of its own in the Middle East, analysts here say, because of its proximity to the region and high dependence on its oil. But European countries will be unable to defend those interests short of greater EC integration, these analysts add.
Some Community officials in Brussels say there is room for optimism on the EC's political prospects since, in those areas where the Community already has jurisdiction, it did take action. EC leaders swiftly condemned Iraq's invasion, called for a tight embargo, and voted aid to front-line countries most affected by the crisis, commission officials note.
``The criticisms are coming from those who expected us to be what we aren't yet,'' says an official. That reasoning has led some EC leaders to conclude that, with the right institutional reforms, Europe will be up to fulfilling a larger international role.
Yet the kinds of reforms needed - majority voting on foreign policy positions, for example - were never going to be easy to achieve. Some here fear that bitterness over the Gulf experience could make such accord more difficult.
Another stumbling block is the very diverse public opinions across Europe, which EC leaders cannot disregard. Both the British and French publics expect international roles for their countries. The Germans and the Spanish, on the other hand, contain strong veins of anti-interventionist sentiment.
A recent poll showed many Germans opposed to an important international role for their country, while the country they most admired as a model for Germany was rich and neutral Switzerland.
Such historically inculcated public views can only be overcome by strong leadership, says Dr. Volle, if Europe really wants to be more than an international economic force.
``[Germany] can't continue to use public opinion as a shield to say, `We pay and you sacrifice soldiers,''' she says. ``It's up to European leaders to assess our interests and define our role.''