Over the next few weeks, about 1,800 European soldiers under the command of a French general will set up camp in Macedonia. Their mission: to protect and rescue if necessary the 2,000 unarmed observers who will be monitoring the cease-fire in the neighboring Serb province of Kosovo.
It is a small force, and it may never see action. But it packs a heavy punch as the symbolic vanguard of a new European drive to shake off dependency on the United States and to give the continent its own autonomous defense force.
That initiative has been given new impetus by a change of heart in London. The British government - long hostile to any European Union defense role - is now leading the charge for a strong EU defense capacity. "Europe is on the brink of taking decisive steps," British Defense Minister George Robertson said recently.
Proponents of a heavyweight European military potential are careful to stress that they plan nothing outside NATO's umbrella, and that they do not envision any alternative to the transatlantic alliance that has guaranteed European security for the past 50 years. The Macedonian force, for example, will ultimately take its orders from NATO headquarters in Brussels.
But there is a growing feeling - sharpened by Europe's failure to prevent or resolve conflicts in the Balkans - that the EU should be able to take strategic decisions to act militarily in situations where the US is unwilling to involve itself.
"Europe needs genuine military operational capability - not least forces able to react quickly and work together effectively - and genuine political will," British Prime Minister Tony Blair told NATO ministers this week.
"Without these we will always be talking about an empty shell," he said.
Washington has long called on European governments to take on more of the burden of European security. At the same time, the US has always been suspicious of any moves that might undermine NATO. This time, officials appear to welcome the effort.
"It is useful to have people recognizing that there is a responsibility and a need to fill that responsibility," says a US official in Paris, who declined to be named. "Europe making sure it is capable of sharing the burden is a welcome thought."
A bigger role
European leaders have been talking for several years about how they might carve out a more assertive role in international affairs for the EU, and give the 15-member grouping a louder diplomatic voice.
"It is abnormal that Europe should play no role in the Middle East peace process, or that Europe should be the biggest financial contributor to international efforts in Bosnia and Kosovo but all the strategic decisions are made by the Americans," says Pascal Boniface, head of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations, a think tank in Paris.
"But Europe has not been united about its goals, and it is accustomed to dependency," he says.
The institution through which Europe might conduct military operations - the Western European Union (WEU) - has existed for years, and NATO agreed two years ago that European governments could borrow NATO assets to carry out its own missions. But the WEU has been emasculated by a lack of political will.
For example, when Washington threatened to pull US troops out of SFOR, the international military force keeping the peace in the former Yugoslavia, Britain and France threatened to do the same.
"This was not a very good way to show how to take responsibility" for security in Europe, says Gordon Wilson, a researcher at the WEU-sponsored Institute for Security Studies in Paris.
Weak in a crisis
Europe's weakness, revealed during the Bosnia crisis, has been underscored in Kosovo this year.
"The crisis in Kosovo laid bare once again Europeans' impotence to collectively formulate a global and coherent response to crises that affect the stability of their continent," complained Belgian Foreign Minister Eric Derycke this week.
"Europe must equip itself with the proper instrument allowing it to take all its responsibilities."
What that instrument might be is still a matter for study. But the idea, analysts say, is that eventually the EU would be able to deploy European troops, under a European military commander, to carry out operations such as peace-keeping or crisis prevention even if the US had no interest in them.
If necessary they could use NATO assets, though these would not always be needed.
Not a NATO duplicate
Mr. Blair has stressed that he has no plan for a standing European army, nor does he intend the putative "European Security and Defense Identity" to duplicate NATO.
At the same time, national governments, not the European Commission (the body that runs the EU) would decide if and when to commit troops.
But the EU is hoping to raise its diplomatic and defense profile next year when its 15 member governments appoint a high representative for foreign and security policy.
The nominee is expected to be an internationally known figure who will carry weight in world chancelleries.
For the time being, European foreign and security policy is patched together piecemeal, phone call by phone call, and its fruits are meager. Nor is anybody expecting radical changes immediately.
"You are not going to have a European Security and Defense Identity overnight," points out Mr. Boniface. "This is a gradual process."
"We can't try to steal the keys to the car," adds Guido Lenzi, director of the Institute for Security Studies in Paris.
"We can only take them from the Americans, and even then we are only going to go around the block to start with.
"It will be a long time before we are in a position to buy our own car and enter a real race," he says.