Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac on Wednesday began mapping out a role for the United Nations in postwar Iraq, as Europe's leaders tried to put the divisions caused by the crisis behind them.
Europe's leaders embarked on a frenetic round of bridge-mending at the EU summit in Athens, aimed at showing that they were prepared to play a full role in rebuilding Iraq.
Foreign ministers from Britain, France, Germany, Spain and Russia were on Wednesday night attempting to agree a detailed plan of action with Kofi Annan, UN secretary-general.
Mr. Chirac, the French president, acknowledged that U.S. and British forces had to stabilise the situation before the UN could be sent in.
In his first meeting with Mr. Blair since the first day of the war, the two leaders held what were described as "serious but amiable" talks in the courtyard of the 19th century Zappeion Hall.
Later Mr. Chirac announced that the European Union would in the next few days launch a humanitarian airlift operation to bring out injured Iraqis, particularly children, for hospital treatment in the west.
"Issue by issue, we have to find the right balance between the role of the UN, which must be the essential role, and the role of American and British forces on the ground," said Mr Chirac's spokeswoman.
Mr. Chirac's increased engagement in the postwar Iraq situation was seen by EU diplomats as an attempt to reduce the risk of France becoming isolated in Europe.
On Tuesday Gerhard Schröder, German chancellor, held talks with Mr. Blair that British diplomats described as "excellent" and a sign that he was returning to the Atlanticist fold.
Mr. Chirac's sense of potential isolation will have been heightened at Wednesday's summit when the accession treaty for 10 new EU members was signed, most of them pro-U.S. former Communist states.
But it remains clear that the deep ideological divide in Europe will take some time to heal, with Mr. Chirac continuing to push his wish to create an EU role as a counterbalance to U.S. power.
"Europe is about a collective ambition, shared disciplines, firm solidarity and naturally looking to the European family," he said at the treaty signing ceremony.
The ceremony itself marks the culmination of the EU enlargement process, which began almost immediately after the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Cyprus and Malta will join the EU in May 2004 after the treaty has been ratified.
But the accession of the new member states, nearly all of them small in terms of population, has opened up the prospect of a new big-small divide opening up in Europe.
In talks on the future of Europe on Wednesday, virtually all of the smaller countries spoke out against the idea of creating a powerful new EU president, although the idea is backed by all of the bigger nations.