WHAT started as the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 is 40 years later on the threshold of a new path returning Europe to its place of international economic and political preeminence.The way is now clearly marked, most analysts and officials agree, but years of experience and work - and occasional setbacks - remain before the European Community becomes the "European Union" its leaders envision, with a central, effective role on the world scene. The new treaties on economic and political integration agreed to in Maastricht, Netherlands, last week, were historic steps on an evolutionary path toward increased global power and influence. "Symbolically, a page was opened in Maastricht which could lead to a Copernican revolution" for the EC, says Dominique Mosi, associate director of the French Institute for International Studies in Paris. The "Community's commitment to a single currency by the end of the decade will act as a kind of automatic pilot, pulling other things along," says Peter Ludlow, director of the Center for European Policy Studies. Over the next decade, he says, the EC will "incorporate more and more features of the traditional great power including an increasingly coherent foreign policy, a common defense, and a powerful international currency. Still, some observers say Maastricht left the door open to a number of difficult problems that will hamper both the EC's ability to take on the international role it desires, and its sense of unity. The issue of national sovereignty versus a continuing transfer of power and responsibility to EC institutions remains open. The British carried out a high-profile debate on the issue before Maastricht. Continuing economic disparity among members, and, with monetary union, pressures to either bring economic performance in line or fall into a second tier of membership, will make agreement over some political issues more difficult. With already high unemployment expected to rise as countries try to rein in spending, strains over the EC budget, taxation, trade, and other issues are likely to grow. Maastricht was a disappointment, according to Angelika Volle, EC specialist at the German Society for Foreign Affairs in Bonn, because it fell short in two of its main goals: giving the EC the political tools to develop a greater international role and anchoring an increasingly dominant and powerful Germany to the EC. "There will be no greater international role; in fact the opposite will happen," she says. With self-confidence and assertiveness rising in Germany, "I think the Germans will move away." Many EC countries had wanted stronger measures, such as majority voting, to facilitate a common foreign policy. But for now the process remains based largely on consensus and intergovernmental cooperation. That may have been the only realistic choice. "A foreign policy based on majority voting makes no sense," says Philippe Moreau-Defarges, European specialist at the French Institute for International Studies. "As long as there are independent states [in the EC,] none will accept to have its international options determined by a majority." Both Britain's insistence on opt-out clauses from the "irreversible" monetary union and from a new social policy and the rancorous debate led by Germany over recognition of Yugoslav republics in recent days indicate how domestic politics will continue to play a determining role. Because of dissension within his own party and a national election before next summer, British Prime Minister John Major could not afford a summit where he appeared to cave in on issues affecting national sovereignty. Thus his Maastricht performance - where he stood firm for opt-outs, while allowing the EC to advance in important areas - was determined by a narrow margin of maneuver at home. Mr. Major has said he wants to put Britain "in the heart of Europe," and few observers doubt that, in the long run , that's a closer depiction of where Britain will be. Germany's performance on recognition of Yugoslavia is another case in point. German officials and observers say Germany's action, which keeps a promise of recogniton of Slovenia and Croatia by Christmas while maintaining EC unity, is a reflection of domestic sentiment. Germany's ability to convince its partners to hasten recogntion reflects its growing weight in the EC since reunification. It had held off for two months out of a desire to support EC unity. The hard bargaining over Yugoslavia shows how the commitment to greater unity is likely to affect political action. That the compromise was partially based on a Franco-German proposal is significant. The "traditonal Paris-Bonn axis of power will continue for the foreseeable future," says Mosi. "It will remain central; only the balance between the two has been modified - more weight for Germany, less for France." That "enduring couple" will continue to hold Germany back from solo wanderings toward the East, French officials believe. And even as the EC gradually develops a common defense policy through the Maastricht-established link to the all-European Western European Union defense organization, German officials say their influence will continue "pulling France closer to the [NATO] Alliance." Internally, the EC must face the possibility that Maastricht opened the door to a "two-speed" European integration, through its tough monetary agreement and decision to move forward on social policy without Britain. But Ludlow counters that the EC has always been a "multi-speed" organization, and that serious problems will only arise if Britain remains permanently outside the social policy - something few analysts foresee. Another problem that will only grow in importance is the European population's own lack of clarity about what the Community is. "The system is so complex, it's not transparent even to those inside it," says Ludlow. Some steps have been taken toward addressing this weakness. The Maastricht treaty adopts a French idea for regular joint sessions between the European Parliament and national parliaments. It also creates, with the European Parliament, an office of ombudsman to receive citizen complaints on EC activities. Yet most analysts see one of the Maastricht agreement's brightest spots in its commitment to another treaty revision in 1996. "Deepening [EC institutions] was a condition for meeting the principle challenge of this decade, which will be enlargement," says Mosi. The mid-decade revision is "a guarantee that the evolutionary response to new demands will continue."