Against a backdrop of growing anger and division, the European Union's four leading opponents of the war in Iraq are pressing ahead with a summit in Brussels tomorrow to discuss boosting military co-operation in Europe.
France, fresh from a bruising encounter with the United States over Iraq, remains as determined as ever to build Europe into a military, political and economic counterweight to the world's only superpower.
President Jacques Chirac and the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, are expected to use the summit with Belgium and Luxembourg to push the case that Europe needs to build common defence forces that are as independent as possible of America and Nato.
Britain, one of Europe's biggest military powers, has been scathing in its criticism of the gathering, which was the brainchild of Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian Prime Minister. "The idea of a European defence based on Belgium and without England – I wonder if that's particularly serious," said Denis MacShane, Britain's minister for Europe. The Foreign Office added: "Cutting across Nato will weaken our defences."
Britain was originally excluded from the meeting – with the Greek presidency, Spain and Italy.
Italy was deeply irritated by its exclusion from the summit. Rocco Buttiglione, its Euro-pean Affairs Minister, said: "This meeting is a mistake and risks accentuating the divergences between partners by giving the impression that Europe is beleaguered by divisions."
Also absent will be Javier Solana, the EU's high representative for common foreign and security policy. He described the meeting as "interesting", but curiously will be otherwise engaged. "We will see what the results will be ... if there are results," he commented acidly, pointing out that any conclusion would have to be taken up by all EU member states.
The meeting was eventually thrown open to the rest of the EU, but no other state has chosen to attend. America, which is determined to punish France for its opposition to war against Iraq, is understood to have pressured member states to stay away from the conference, which takes place a day before Nato meets to discuss sending peace-keeping forces to Iraq.
Unrepentant, the four EU states behind the summit believe that the divisions opened up in Europe by the Iraq war have pointed up the importance of developing a common foreign and security policy.
So far the EU has managed to launch a tiny operation in Macedonia. This, the EU's first military operation, is headed by a French general.
France has far grander ambitions. Ideas on how to develop the EU force range from the creation of a "capabilities agency" to pool equipment to more fundamental initiatives, such as the collective defence clause proposed by Paris and Berlin in case of an attack on any member state.
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