Tony Blair headed for a council of war with George Bush yesterday with the backing of seven European countries but with EU policy towards Iraq disintegrating into bitterness and division.
The Prime Minister is confident that President Bush will agree to delay a war against Iraq for more than a month during their crucial talks over the timescale for military action at the President's Camp David retreat today. But Mr Blair's preparations were marred by a rift over an Anglo-Spanish declaration of support for the US over Iraq, endorsed by three other EU countries and three east European nations that will join next year.
The dispute advertised the continental divide described by Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, as pitting "old Europe" against the new.
For months, European diplomats have sought to paper over their differences and, as recently as Monday, EU foreign ministers signed up to a communiqué that concentrated on the limited areas of agreement over Iraq.
But yesterday's "gang of eight" declaration shattered any pretence of consensus. Four EU countries on the United Nations Security Council – France, Germany, the UK and Spain – are in two camps.
The letter was signed by Britain, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Denmark, plus Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, which will join the EU next year. In a significant departure, the former eastern bloc countries were brought in to support the declaration, underlining the Atlanticist credentials of many of the nations that will join the EU next year.
Costas Simitis, the Prime Minister of Greece, which holds the EU's rotating presidency but was left out of the loop, declared that the letter signed by eight nations "does not contribute to a common approach". Greek officials were furious. "Prime Minister Simitis had talks with Tony Blair and [Jose Maria] Aznar [the Spanish premier] in the last few days and nobody informed him," said one official. Mr Simitis heard about the Anglo-Spanish initiative only yesterday when he held talks with one of the signatories, Peter Medgyessy, Hungary's premier.
The declaration by the eight countries was seen as a direct challenge to France and Germany which, having revived their traditional alliance, have gone public with their doubts on American policy.
One British minister said: "France and Germany went very public over Iraq, so we shouldn't be afraid of doing the same. They may not like what we have done, but you can't have one rule for some and another rule for the rest."
After talks with Mr Aznar in Madrid, Mr Blair admitted there were divergences between Europe and America on such issues as climate change and trade. But he stressed that "what unites the EU and America infinitely outweighs what divides them. When we stand together the world is a safer and more peaceful place."
Mr Blair expressed confidence that the European Union doubters would rally behind military action. He said the UN would agree a second resolution authorising action on the basis that President Saddam Hussein had failed to cooperate with the inspectors.
Today Mr Blair will urge President Bush to stick with the UN route. One British source said: "We have to strike a delicate balance between giving the UN weapons inspectors more time, building an international coalition and not being strung along by Saddam Hussein."
Downing Street said the idea of the joint statement was suggested last Friday by Mr Aznar although it was drafted by both Britain and Spain.
Mr Aznar told journalists in Madrid yesterday: "I don't remember who was the father of the idea of writing the article, but it's not a crime to have written the article."
In private, a senior EU official was overheard describing the idea of a common EU foreign policy on Iraq as a "complete joke". The declaration was, according to another EU official, a reaction to the "disgusting self-congratulation" of the Élysée celebrations, which marked the 40th anniversary of a Franco-German friendship treaty. One diplomat added: "Apparently it has infuriated the French-- all in all a very good outcome."