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LONDON — Economics and business trends are bringing the world together, but politics continue to tear it apart.

This is the lesson that is being born in on the member states of the European Union as they wrestle with the task of enlarging their numbers to include East and Central Europe, and as they try to make sense of the unsettled and fragmented map of Europe that is the legacy of the old Soviet empire.

Nowhere is this lesson more acute and challenging than in the Balkans, an area that stretches from the borders of Austria and Hungary in the north to the Peloponese and the Eastern Mediterranean in the south — an area seething with ethnic rivalries and hatreds that continue to lead to instability and violence on a hideous scale.

Two years after the theoretical end of the Bosnian war, and less than six months since the Serbians, cowed by allied bombing, agreed to pull out of their province of Kosovo, it is just beginning to become apparent how radically the whole Balkan quagmire affects the European integration project, and will continue to do so.

Voices are now being raised urging the governments of the EU to switch their whole strategy, giving priority not to the laborious process of integrating Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and other applicants into the Union, which will take years, but to the immediate and urgent task of embracing the whole Balkan area within an expanded zone of security and economic development.

Only in this way, goes this argument, can there be any hope of stabilizing the Balkan scene permanently. Otherwise, it is claimed, the Americans will get bored and go home — as they are clearly longing to do. Unless the Europeans then pick up the challenge, the Bosnian peace will collapse, the Kosovan Liberation Army will carry on with its bloody revenge against the Serbian minority in Kosovo, the Serbs in turn will seek a new retaliation, the Albanians will be roused to join in and the whole bloody imbroglio will spill out into the surrounding nations — including Greece — and poison the entire body of the EU.

Even now, that poison is spreading. As Sadako Ogata, the redoubtable Japanese U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has repeatedly pointed out, the whole region is awash with homeless and dispossessed people, victims of the breakup of the old Yugoslavia and of the Kosovo atrocities. Other situations, worse even than Kosovo, threaten where minorities and majorities have proved, and still prove, totally incapable of living together.

Left to themselves, the outcome can only mean war and more war — and still more refugees. These in turn are already spilling out into the rest of Europe, unsettling other minorities and raising enormous tensions and antagonisms. One only has to see how immigration questions have taken top place in Austrian politics — greatly to the benefit of Joerg Haidar and his rightwing, ultranationalist supporters — to understand what the consequences of years of more Balkan fighting and ethnic cleansing could be, not only in Austrian but in German and French politics as well.

What, then, is the answer? NATO will soon have to leave Kosovo as the Americans go home, but who will then keep the peace there or in the surrounding area? And who, anyway, is the sovereign authority in this unhappy province? Will it become one more tiny, independent nation, like East Timor, or will it somehow exist as an autonomous province within Serbia, as the current U.N. position suggests?

And how long will the Serbs tolerate that without insisting on reasserting their legal authority and moving in once more to protect the local Serbians and evict the Albanians, thus triggering the whole lethal process all over again?

One only has to pose these questions to see how impossible the Balkan future looks — unless some larger and confident authority steps in as a permanent protector and as the guarantor of all the frightened minorities. Without that underpinning, there can be no hope of resettling the refugees and no hope of economic revival and the restoration of the shattered infrastructure.

And without the revival, without roads to travel on, bridges to cross, trade routes to be opened, there will be no peace and no winding down of the remorseless local hostilities and feuds.

Almost throughout history, the Balkan region has either been pacified under a higher imperial rule — the Romans, the Turks, the Austro-Hungarians, the communists — or it has been left to explode. There seems no middle way.

The question now confronting the EU is whether it can step into the breach and offer the security to the whole area without which no peace is possible.

It is a question the Europeans would much rather not hear. It implies that the Europeans must now develop a security identity and assume a security role far more extensive than anything contemplated so far. And it implies that this should take priority over all other projects for either “widening” or “deepening” the EU.

Greece, physically caught up in the Balkan world, has sought to take the lead in alerting the rest of the EU to the desperate seriousness of the situation. Casting itself as “a pole of stability” in the whole Balkan region, it has joined with the other European states in agreeing on a southeast European “stability pact,” which at least points in the right direction, even if it consists more of good intentions than commitments to action.

But the time for paper agreements and expressions of concern may be running out. This single region has already been the spark for at least one major European war and several minor ones. It has the potential to sour Russian relations with the West, drive the United States into isolation and infect the whole of European politics.

And it will certainly do so unless Europe’s statesmen take a decisive lead — and soon.

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