A group of ten eastern European states which added to Europe's diplomatic kerfuffle surrounding the possible war on Iraq when they came out in strong support of the American line. Not, as one might think, a circle of Lithuanian dissidents from the late Gorbachev era, or a rejected pitch for an S Club 7 rip-off.

The Vilnius group was formed on May 19, 2000 by nine countries aspiring to join NATO and seeking ways to co-operate with each other in implementing the Membership Action Plan with which they had to comply before they could be admitted. The original Vilniusers or Vilniites? were Albania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Slovenia, Slovakia and Romania: four ex-Warsaw Pact states, three ex-Soviet republics, and two former component republics of Yugoslavia.

In May 2001, the ex-Yugoslav contingent was increased to three when Croatia, now anxious to make up for lost time in the European integration race after the death of the semi-isolationist president Franjo Tudjman, signed up to the Vilnius group at a meeting of its prime ministers in Bratislava.

The Vilnius Ten models itself on the Višegrád Group, which originally consisted of central Europe's three front-runners to join the EU and NATO, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. Formed in 1991, at a meeting of the three states' presidents in the same castle where the Polish, Hungarian and Bohemian kings had held a summit of their own in 1335, the Višegrad troika later expanded to a quartet after Czechoslovakia's velvet divorce.

Slovakia remains a Višegrad member today, although it dropped some way down the European integration list after the split with Prague and, more seriously, the years of near-dictatorship under nationalist president Vladimir Mečiar. The Slovaks signed up to Vilnius as well, according themselves the doubtful privilege of getting to host two separate sets of summit meetings.

While the Ten might be thought of as representing eastern Europe's second wave, the distinction has been blurred by the enlargement timetables of the institutions they plan to join. Seven of the Ten were admitted to NATO in November 2002, leaving Albania, Macedonia and Croatia to wait for the next round of Atlanticist enthusiasm. Or, remembering that the Višegrad Top Three made it into NATO just before the 1999 bombing of Kosovo, the next time Washington could do with an all-hands-on-deck favour.

EU enlargement arrangements also divide the Ten. Well-developed Slovenia and Estonia have long been seen as no less ready than the Višegrad group and, in fact, rather more ready than Slovakia. All three, referenda permitting, will now join in 2004, alongside the other two Baltic republics, but Bulgaria and Romania have been told they must wait until 2007. Croatia and Macedonia, let alone Albania, are still not official candidates, although the ex-Yugoslavs have both made preliminary agreements.

In public, the EU welcomes its foray into what was once the Soviet bloc with a flurry of blue flags and yellow stars; in private, the Union's established powers harbour reservations that their own weight in EU decision-making will be diluted after the accessions. French fingernails, especially, are in for some uneasy years, since many of the newcomers appear to gravitate more naturally to Berlin, making for quite some tension within the so-called Franco-German axis which has often been the EU's prime motivator. The second language in Vilnius states, too, is rather more likely to be William Shakespeare's than Marcel Proust's.

Gallic unease came to a head in February 2003 after the EU and its hopefuls divided into two camps over the war against Saddam Hussein. At the behest of the British prime minister, supposed socialist and faithful American ally Tony Blair, four EU members with centre-right governments (Italy, Spain, Denmark and Portugal) signed a letter on January 30 pledging support for Washington's stance, and were joined by Poland, Hungary and the Czechs to make up an alignment known as the Gang of Eight.

A few days later, the Vilnius Ten came out with their own statement in similar terms. The American defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld gratefully referred to them as the embodiment of the New Europe, reviving a term applied to the region by hopeful democrats during World War I, when much of it was still under Habsburg rule. The British academic and propagandist R. W. Seton-Watson had used the name as the title of his weekly journal of central European affairs.

Rumsfeld went on to hit out at the unco-operative Old Europe of France and Germany, hinting that American forces might be redeployed away from Germany and on to NATO's new frontier and provoking a furious reaction from the French president Jacques Chirac. At the end of an emergency summit convened in Brussels on February 18 to try to co-ordinate a pan-European response to the crisis, Chirac attacked the Ten's behaviour as 'reckless', 'infantile' and 'dangerous', with an implicit warning that it might affect their prospects of joining the EU. The candidate states had already been upset when Greece, in its capacity as EU president, had excluded them from the summit.

The Vilnius response was equally robust, with the Romanian president Ion Iliescu describing Chirac's remarks as 'undemocratic'. Iliescu, perhaps, should know better than most; Bucharest's veteran political chameleon had been a second-string Communist leader under Nicolae Ceausescu. The Slovakian foreign minister, Edvard Kukan, pointed out that Chirac had not applied similar criticisms to Italy, Spain or Portugal.

Murmurs from some Višegrad chancelleries also suggested that the 2004 candidates had been under previous diplomatic pressure from France and Germany to align themselves with Chirac's line on the war instead of Blair's, and one unnamed Czech official expressed alarm to the UK newspaper The Guardian that Berlin now envisaged a 'German Europe' rather than, as it had used to do, a 'European Germany'. In parallel with an emerging split in NATO after France vetoed troops being sent to Turkey's border with Iraq, the argument seemed to confirm Henry Kissinger's comment that Europe had no telephone number.

Although the Ten may well hope that America will champion their efforts to join the EU in return for services rendered, their Atlanticism may also have deep historical roots, with a widespread suspicion of French security guarantees after the 1930s experience: it is hoped in central Europe that NATO will provide, if necessary, what the Little Entente never could.

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