Plans for a rare three-way meeting between Britain, France and Germany before today's EU summit have threatened to open a rift in Europe over the conduct of the bombing campaign in Afghanistan.
The gathering, which will take place in Ghent this afternoon, has angered Italy, which has not been invited, and was criticised publicly yesterday by the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi.
Belgium, which holds the rotating EU presidency, declared itself relaxed about the meeting, which will bring together Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, the French President, and Gerhard Schröder, the German Chancellor. But privately EU officials are disturbed by the apparent development of a caucus of big states, which could undermine EU solidarity.
They predict that the British, French and Germans will incur the resentment of big countries such as Italy and Spain, which feel snubbed, and of some small states, which will see the event as a demonstration of the dominance of the EU's biggest members.
Mr Prodi said: "I think it is a shame that some countries will be meeting and that some countries are not attending."
Later, questioned about the individual roles of some EU leaders, he remarked pointedly: "Where the Commission has a presence, that is where Europe is."
Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, who has offered America military assistance, was forced to admit that he had not been invited. "I did not know anything about it," he said, before adding that he was in any event "engaged in a prior meeting" – in fact a routine eve-of-summit gathering of centre-right political leaders.
The British Government said the three-way meeting was limited to the three nations that have been asked by America to make a military contribution to the fight against international terrorism.
Mr Blair's official spokesman sought to play down the row, saying the discussion was proposed by President Chirac and that it was "simple common sense" for the three leaders to meet while they were in Ghent.
He added: "The main EU meeting will discuss the position in Afghanistan. There will be a chance for all member states to contribute to that discussion over dinner."
Robin Cook, the Leader of the Commons, said: "There is no question we are ganging up on the others. On this issue there is a uniformity of view right across the EU."
Some small countries, including neutral states that have no intention of taking part in military action, are happy to allow the event to go ahead without them being associated.
Meetings between two countries are common before summits, but a three-way gathering of big states – described by its critics as a pre-summit – is very rare. This one comes at a delicate moment, with doubts growing in some quarters about the efficacy of the bombing campaign.
The leaders of Britain, France and Germany are expected to review their military contribution and the possible use of ground troops. Yesterday Mr Blair said in Downing Street that "further targeted action" was being considered.Reuse content