Blair will urge Bush to accept Europe's help

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Tony Blair will press President George Bush tomorrow to accept more European help in the war in Afghanistan to head off growing frustration over America's apparent indifference to international offers of military support.

The "council of war" held by seven EU countries in Downing Street on Sunday, which reiterated European backing for America, underlined the impatience of some nations that have made public offers of military support. And it also caused a row about who should be invited to such talks.

The Prime Minister is sympathetic to offers by Italy, Spain and the Netherlands to join Britain, France and Germany in providing support for the American-dominated action in Afghanistan. He will ask Mr Bush to accept more back-up from EU countries when the two leaders meet at the White House tomorrow night.

British ministers said the move would highlight the strength of the international coalition against terrorism. They also said EU countries that had taken "difficult" decisions to offer forces should now be allowed to deploy them.

One senior official said: "The more people invited to partake, the more of a stake they have in the operation and the more support they are going to give to it." One or two countries, which have been "courageous" in making their pledges, need them to be taken seriously by America for the sake of domestic public opinion, he added.

Sunday night's discussion also agreed on the need to press the United States and all interested parties to increase efforts to push forward the Middle East peace process.

The meeting helped underscore support for the US, but it also caused continuing fears that European policy is being driven by the Britain, France and Germany. That has raised particular concerns in Italy and Spain, the two other EU nations which have most publicly pledged military support, and in the Netherlands, which is in talks on possible contributions with American officials.

To the embarrassment of Downing Street, the guestlist for Sunday's meeting had to be expanded several times to avoid a re-run of the row that overshadowed last month's EU summit in Ghent, when Britain, France and Germany held a pre-summit meeting to discuss the military campaign.

Originally Mr Blair was scheduled to meet only his French and German counterparts. At the weekend, Washington indicated it would take up Italy's offer to contribute forces, giving the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, a pretext to force his way onto Downing Street's invitation list.

Italy's inclusion prompted further invitations to Spain, whose Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, has also pledged support, and Belgium, which holds the EU's rotating presidency. In a further embarrassment to Downing Street the guest list had to be expanded to include Wim Kok, the Dutch Prime Minister, who announced his intention to attend. He told reporters of the chaotic background to the meeting: "I heard in the course of the afternoon, actually the second half of the afternoon, that the field of participants had become broader than originally [planned] and I had a phone call with Prime Minister Blair and I said, 'Listen, what is going to be discussed? Is it going to be an informal meeting? Are you going to brief us and listen to our views?' "

Greece, Portugal and Luxembourg protested yesterday at a meeting of EU ambassadors and Finland also criticised the format of the mini-summit.

The resulting diplomatic mess may be worse than that produced by the Ghent debacle. With Mr Blair and the French President, Jacques Chirac, both visiting Washington this week the Government saw the gathering as an opportunity to co-ordinate positions. But Italy is still fuming about its exclusion from the Ghent meeting and ensured that this omission would not be repeated.

Downing Street said the bigger-than-expected meeting highlighted the unity of EU countries. A spokesman said the talks had been "highly successful" on both terrorism and the Middle East.

While the EU's four neutral countries, Finland, Sweden, Austria and Ireland, are happy to miss military discussions, they are not so relaxed about the idea of other issues, such as the future of Afghanistan and the Middle East peace process, being debated without them.

That feeling is even stronger among small and medium-sized countries such as Greece and Portugal who are also part of Nato. One EU diplomat said: "Some of the issues discussed, including the Middle East peace process, are the same as those which were on the table for last week's general affairs council [of foreign ministers]. This leads to confusion both internally and with our external partners."

A Portuguese cabinet source was quoted as saying such meetings "contribute neither to the cohesion of the anti-terrorist alliance, nor to European unity", and a Finnish official added: "Our position is that this is not the correct way to conduct European affairs."

The presence in London of the Belgian EU presidency and the EU's foreign policy high representative, Javier Solana, seems to have been designed to reassure small countries and give a voice to those not around the table. Ironically, this backfired because their presence added to the impression that this was a formal EU meeting.

British officials are adamant that the mini-summit was primarily about reinforcing Britain's position as a bridge between the EU and the United States. Mr Blair flies to America on Concorde for dinner with Mr Bush tomorrow, after he takes prime minister's questions in the Commons.