As French Health Minister Bernard Kouchner takes up his new job as United Nations administrator of Kosovo this week, even more is riding on his appointment than the way in which he restores the shattered Serbian province to life.
His posting, boosted by the European Union, is a major piece in the jigsaw puzzle that is taking shape as Europeans debate a key question about their future: How far does "Europe" stretch?
"For the first time in Western policy, I sense a determination not just to put money there, but to give serious political thought to integrate the area," says Chris Cviic, a Southeast Europe expert at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London.
Just before NATO began bombing Yugoslavia, British Prime Minister Tony Blair defended the use of force against President Slobodan Milosevic on the grounds that Europe could not tolerate his savagery "on our doorstep."
Three months, a war, and the launch of a reconstruction effort later, the Balkans have come in from the porch and installed themselves in the hallway of the "common European home" that the Continent has been building since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.
They have arrived with an uninvited guest - a Serbia still led by President Milosevic - but they are here to stay. For the first time in five centuries a curtain of religious and political differences has been lifted, and Europe is embarking on possibly its hardest-ever feat of integration.
It all begins in Kosovo, as the focal point for a German-sponsored "stability pact" for the Balkans, designed to finance the redevelopment of the region and encourage democracy. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer recently accepted US pressure for Europe to contribute most to this program, saying that "Southeast Europe is part of Europe. It is our responsibility."
Different from Dayton
But European leaders also are anxious to take a leading role in the political development of the area, especially since many resent the fact that they are providing the lion's share of peacekeepers and economic aid in Bosnia to implement a peace deal there that Washington designed and imposed at the Dayton, Ohio, peace conference.
This time, insists French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, "Europe should play a very important role in the reconstruction, because this is part of Europe ... but there is no question of Europe being confined to the role of a writer of checks."
And just as European troops, from Britain, France, Germany, and Italy were the first into Kosovo to secure the region in the wake of the Serbian military withdrawal, European companies are hoping to be the first into the region to take advantage of rebuilding opportunities.
"It won't just be Washington and Brussels," says Mr. Cviic. "If Italy would invest, Greece would invest, the neighbors too, will get involved ... they trade with the region and use it as a transit route."
Already European businessmen are scanning www.seerecon.org, the Web site set up by the European Commission (the EU's ruling body) and the World Bank as a clearing house for information on Southeast Europe Reconstruction.
The task, both political and economic, of making the Balkans a real part of Europe is daunting: Southeast Europe includes two of the continent's most backward and damaged economies - in Serbia and Albania - and none of the countries in the region have any experience of democracy as it is practiced in Western Europe.
Expanded EU a ways off
Nor is anyone suggesting that regional countries might join the EU any time soon. Even the most advanced applicant countries, such as Cyprus and the Czech Republic, are not likely to be admitted for another five years. But European officials have offered to associate Macedonia and Albania with the EU in some form of partnership, as a sign of gratitude for the help those two countries gave to NATO during the war in Kosovo.
And Montenegro, though a constituent republic of Yugoslavia, is expected to benefit from the regional stability pact, in recognition of its government's pro-Western stance during the conflict.
On the military side, European armies will provide the bulk of the 45,000-man peacekeeping force that is currently being deployed in Kosovo, under the command of British Lt. Gen. Mike Jackson.
This open-ended commitment to keep the peace in a region where no political solution is in sight is a costly one. But it puts flesh on the bones of the EU's new determination - enshrined at last month's EU summit in Cologne - to forge a common defense policy backed up by common forces.
US still needed
As Europe extends its boundaries beyond the largely peaceful and prosperous nations that have created the European Union over the past half century, and into more troublesome hotspots such as the Balkans, it will need troops of its own for crisis-management operations.
Never is Europe likely to be able to mount an offensive such as the Kosovo bombardment without American help: US planes accounted for nearly 80 percent of the total force. But for smaller-scale missions in which Washington might have no interest, the EU can build forces.
If the war in Kosovo turns out to have been a springboard to lasting stability in the Balkans, and to a new and broader European sense of identity, it may also prove to have been the launch pad for a military force capable of imposing that identity.