"There is nobody I know of in Europe that wants to see European defence go forward at the expense of NATO," Blair told a press conference alongside Chirac after a Franco-British summit in London on Monday.

The comments came as France and Britain launched new proposals to strengthen European cooperation on defence and proscribed a greater role for Europe's rapid-reaction force within United Nations operations.

"Neither the Germans nor the French wish in the slightest way to take any initiative which will be in contradiction with NATO, which as the prime minister has said, is the mainstay of European defence," Chirac said.

New EU force

Both leaders stressed that the new EU force - already seen operating in Macedonia and the Democratic Republic of Congo - was not aimed at weakening NATO.

A communique from the summit proposed "a new initiative for the EU to focus on the development of its rapid reaction capabilities to enhance its ability to respond to UN requests in short-term crisis management situations."

It was clear differences still remained over the thorny question of whether the EU force should have its own headquarters and planning capability, as France wishes.

Blair dismissed these as "practical questions" which would be resolved, while Chirac stressed the new force should lend "efficiency and character" to the EU and said there should be a separate planning organisation.