FLORENCE, ITALY. — Florence, Italy -- The Yugoslav crisis has demonstrated all too convincingly that ''Europe'' is far from making itself into a political power commensurate with the economic and military weight it can deploy. The West European governments' conduct in this crisis throws into doubt their capacity to create a European political union capable of conducting a common foreign and security policy.
Negotiations to create such a Europe have been under way for a year, with a draft treaty of political union just completed by the Netherlands government, current holder of the European Commission presidency. The project is to be considered at the next European Community summit in the Netherlands in December.
Meanwhile, 350 miles across the Adriatic from this city, a European war of aggression has been going on, upon which the European Community has failed to exercise a serious influence.
The dispatch by Brussels of the admirable Lord Carrington, former NATO secretary general and former British foreign secretary, has failed to convince the Serbian government and Serbian-controlled military command that while they have been on a course of evident short-term gain -- territorially, the Serbs now have, for the moment, most of what they want from Croatia -- the long-term implications are sinister indeed.
Italians find Croatian refugees crossing their borders and landing from sea, fleeing Yugoslav regions that in the past were the subject of dispute between Italians and Yugoslavs. Today, Italians look with disbelief at this irruption of ethnic struggle out of a past which modern West Europeans had complacently thought over and done with.
They had thought Europe incapable of another such war of peoples. Even if some on Europe's Balkan margin still evidenced ethnic passions and outmoded geopolitical dreams, the institutions of the enlightened European Community were thought capable of drawing them into a modern Europe of cooperation and the negotiation of conflicts. No one expected a war like this.
A European military intervention was discussed when the dispatch of observer teams to Yugoslavia initially failed to bring about a cease-fire that lasted. This was a Dutch proposal; but there were too many objections. Legally it amounted to intervention into Yugoslavia's internal affairs, for which the European Community has no mandate. Yugoslavia is not even a member of the Community. The proposal to recognize Croatian (and Slovenian) independence and then intervene in an affair of sovereign states was thought too reckless.
The practical objections were made most forcibly by Britain, which has gone through the ordeal of Northern Ireland. The British army was sent into the six Northern Irish counties in 1969 to keep the peace between two politico-religious communities that hate and fear one another. Twenty-two years later the
soldiers are still there, and taking casualties. Yugoslavia looked to London like Ulster on a really big scale.
The British and others feared that an intervention force would also simply open another front in the Yugoslav civil war, without closing down the existing fronts, so long as Serbs and Croats had not reached the point where they actually wanted to stop fighting and wanted someone outside to save them from themselves.
The argument made for an intervention said that an armed European intrusion could shock the Yugoslavs into something like realism and also give a serious warning -- and serve as a deterrent -- to extreme nationalist forces gathering strength elsewhere in south-central and Balkan Europe.
My own opinion is that military intervention, even if it halted the fighting, would have risked encouraging both sides to go on evading responsibility for what they are doing. The European Community would have been held responsible by each side for keeping each from its maximum goals, and the hatred between the Serbs and Croats would have been perpetuated and deepened, again channelled underground, to reappear yet another day.
It can be argued that each side must finish this bloody acting-out of its fantasies of power and revenge, which the Cold War and Tito's dictatorship previously suppressed. When enough have died, and neither Serbian nor Croatian nation has anything durable to show for the deaths, the time might arrive for something new.
Allowing the two sides to explore the extremity of what they have begun is hard doctrine. The rest of Europe probably is incapable of a hard-hearted detachment from this fratricide. There is a faint hope that the stage of exhaustion and reassessment has already arrived, explaining why, at this writing, Sunday's cease-fire still holds and reports arrive of failing morale and mutiny in the Serbian-dominated national army. If this should be true, there are diplomatic opportunities for the outside powers, whether European or U.N.
One wonders, however, what would have happened if the Europeans had actually proved capable of launching a military intervention, using the political institutions of the European Community and the military ones of West European Union. Whatever this might have meant for Yugoslavia, it would have proved at last that ''Europe'' exists. In the event, proof of the opposite was given.
Had Europe still been made up of the old, original Six, there would probably have been a military intervention. The Dutch proposed it and Germany, France and Italy were for it -- a clear majority. There was no such majority in the Europe of the Twelve. When the European Community enlarges again, there will be less chance than ever that Europe can have a united foreign policy, or act as a single agent on even as limited and obvious an issue as the Yugoslav crisis. This is a lesson most Europeans have yet to digest.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.