THIS week's international conference on the Yugoslav crisis opened amid growing awareness that the year-old war and the way Europeans perceive it have become key factors in deciding the direction of Europe's future.
No longer is the war, which has cost tens of thousands of lives and resulted in millions of refugees or displaced, considered simply a "civil war" with consequences largely limited to the internal players, or at most as an anachronistic blot on the underside of a progressive and unifying Europe.
In Western Europe, concern is growing that the Yugoslav war could turn into the worm that spoils the apple of European union.
"The dangers this war and its implications present are beginning to sink in, but not fast enough and far enough," says Francois Heisbourg, director of the Strategic Studies Institute in London. "The risk is that the `lessons' retained from it will be negative."
For Mr. Heisbourg, one of the gravest dangers for Europe is that the territorial gains made by Serbs and Croatians in Bosnia-Herzegovina may win international recognition. "Across Eastern Europe and into the former Soviet Union, people and leaders facing similar ethnic mixes or separated by borders from enclaves of their own populations are watching carefully the outcome here," he says. Support slips in France
Support for the European Community's Maastricht Treaty on unity is slipping in normally pro-Europe France, according to opinion polls, with the Balkans conflict - which has forced an intense spotlight on the Community's inability to play an effective leadership role in its own backyard - one factor in the slippage.
"We are no longer living in the optimism that followed the conclusion of the Maastricht negotiations [in December 1991]," says one highly placed official at the Elysee, the presidential palace. "We face the serious risk of a Europe that comes undone just as we reach important thresholds in its construction."
Signaling recognition of the growing threat of a "no" vote on Maastricht in a French referendum on Sept. 20, the Elysee announced this week that President Francois Mitterrand will take part Sept. 3 in a televised debate on the referendum. Defeat of the French referendum would doom the Maastricht Treaty, most observers agree. Mr. Mitterrand may have only been exaggerating slightly when he recently said a "no" from the French would wipe out the progress Europe has made over the last 40 years.
Despite growing recognition of the pivotal role the former Yugoslavia is playing in Europe, officials from London to Bonn and Paris are discouraging expectations for any immediate results from the London conference. "I don't think anyone should anticipate any magic solutions when the issues are so complex," says a senior advisor to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
The French will be the most forceful advocates of eventual UN-sanctioned military intervention to ensure humanitarian relief efforts. But after announcing France's readiness to supply the men and materials to take part in such operations, Foreign Minister Roland Dumas last week lamented the "lack of volunteers" coming forward, notably from among France's EC partners, to complete an intervention force. German dilemma
German officials, who believe the likelihood of any international armed intervention is waning, will push for stiffer economic and political pressure against Serbia.
The Yugoslav conflict is seen as one element pushing Germany toward revision of its constitutional prohibition on deploying German troops outside the NATO area. The opposition Social Democrats recently moved toward embracing the use of German troops in UN-led operations.
Still, the use in any capacity of German troops in the former Yugoslavia remains virtually impossible for historic reasons. German officials consider unthinkable the deployment of German soldiers to territory once occupied by the Nazi regime.
Britain, which currently holds the EC's six-month revolving presidency and which called the conference in that capacity, is viewed as having only reluctantly embraced an active role in addressing the Yugoslav crisis. Prime Minister John Major did recently offer 1,800 soldiers for protection of humanitarian convoys, but only after coming under intense pressure.
The French security analyst says an expeditionary corps into Bosnia would require 70,000 to 100,000 troops - a cost-laden option, he admits. But he says the price for Europe of permitting a settlement that sanctions territorial gains by force would be even costlier and more frightening.
"Any wavering on this point leaves post-communist Europe facing massive insecurity, and for a long time to come," he says.
French officials agree that the dangers presented by the Bosnian land-grab weigh heavily, but they insist that military intervention is not the only means for an acceptable settlement.
"Why should it be left to the Serbs to impose their war on us, and not up to Europeans to constrain them to make an acceptable peace?" says the Elysee official.
What Europe must impose before a secure peace is possible, in the former Yugoslavia and beyond, he says, is an inviolable and confidence-building statute guaranteeing the safety and rights of all minorities. "Without that people will not feel safe in their new countries, and nothing will be secure."