BRUSSELS, April 29 (UPI) -- Four European states that opposed the war on Iraq agreed Tuesday to pool their armed forces and set up a military headquarters independent of NATO in a move dismissed as unnecessary by Britain.
Meeting in Brussels, the leaders of France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg signed up to a raft of measures that could lead to a fully fledged European Security and Defense Union by the end of next year.
The new alliance would commit members to create a rapid-reaction force capable of preventing conflicts and managing crises anywhere in the world, to set up a European security and defense college and arms procurement agency, and to come to each other's aid in the event of an attack by another country.
French President Jacques Chirac, a staunch opponent of the second Gulf War, said the proposals would "give Europe the capacity to make a qualitative leap forward in its defense policy."
But it is the plan to build an independent EU military command center on the outskirts of Brussels that has sparked the greatest controversy.
In a joint statement, the four countries -- which are all founding members of the European Union -- agreed to "take the necessary steps to establish, not later than 2004, a multinational deployable force headquarters for joint operations, building on existing deployable headquarters."
The leaders of the four states, dubbed the "coalition of the unwilling" by critics, insisted that creating a stronger Europe did not put the EU on a collision course with Washington, London or other members of NATO.
"The transatlantic partnership remains an essential strategic priority for Europe," the heads of state said in a statement that described the roles of the EU and NATO as "complimentary."
However, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder told reporters a stronger EU defense arm was needed because "within NATO we have very little of Europe."
Rejecting warnings from British Prime Minister Tony Blair that the Belgian initiative could cement divisions between Brussels and Washington, Chirac said: "In order to have balance, we need a stronger European Union and a strong United States."
At the end of a two-hour meeting in Brussels' Egmont Palace, the four leaders invited other European leaders to join them in creating an EU defense union to equal the economic and monetary union that gave birth to the euro.
But the chances of the EU's other 11 states agreeing to pool their armed forces and set up a rival military command center to NATO appear slim.
Ireland, Sweden and Austria are all neutral, Denmark has opted out of the EU's fledgling foreign and security policy mechanisms and the leaders of Britain, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands all distanced themselves from the Belgian-drafted plan in advance of the mini-summit.
One British diplomat told United Press International that London was glad to support any move that strengthened Europe's military capabilities, but said there were "hard questions to ask about the practical impact of duplicating planning headquarters."
"The EU already has access to NATO planning facilities," said the official, referring to the ground-breaking deal struck between the two Brussels-based blocs in December. "If you have a structure which is working, why do you need to build more on top of that?"
EU foreign ministers are due to give their first reaction to the proposals at a weekend meeting in Greece.