European Union defense ministers are meeting in Rome on Friday and Saturday to discuss a controversial plan that would set up an EU military headquarters independent of NATO. The plan has divided the 15-nation bloc and is seen by the United States as a potential threat to the unity of the Atlantic Alliance.
The idea for a separate EU facility to plan military operations came last April as transatlantic tensions were running high over the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg - opponents of the war - suggested that the EU should have its own military headquarters separate from NATO, which they regard as being too much under Washington's influence.
The proposal is tied to the EU's desire to play a bigger political and military role on the world stage.
This year, the bloc took over peacekeeping duties in Macedonia from NATO and sent another force to the Congolese town of Bunia in an effort to halt ethnic violence there. That force has since been replaced by U.N. troops.
The EU also envisages replacing NATO peacekeepers in Bosnia sometime in the future.
But there are doubts about the EU's readiness to undertake such missions.
NATO officials say that, despite having 2.8 million men and women under arms, European members of the alliance still lack transport aircraft, battlefield support systems and secure communications - assets that they need to give muscle to the EU's military ambitions.
Britain is leading the opposition within the EU to the four-nation plan for a separate military headquarters. It wants the bloc to have a stronger defense role, but it insists that such a role remain linked to NATO.
British officials say a separate EU defense planning unit would be a waste of resources since the EU reached an agreement with NATO last year that allows it to use alliance-planning facilities. It has proposed setting up an EUplanning cell at NATO military headquarters for EU operations supported by the alliance and using planning facilities at national military headquarters for the bloc's independent missions.
Italy, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, has suggested creating a mobile pool of EU military planners that would rotate among national headquarters instead of a permanent planning apparatus. But NATO officials say the Italian proposal is only aimed at defusing the split among EU members and does not address the key issue of boosting Europe's military capabilities to face post-Cold War security threats.