In the shadow of an imminent war on Iraq, and with serious splits among its members, the European Union yesterday took an important step toward creating its own security and defense policy by signing an agreement with NATO that will allow it to create a rapid reaction force. The force will begin with a 320-troop mission in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia at the end of March. This is a trial for the much larger mission of replacing NATO’s 12,000 peacekeepers in Bosnia early next year. Foreign Minister George Papandreou, whose country currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, signed the security agreement with NATO Secretary-General George Robertson that will allow classified information to be exchanged by the two organizations automatically. But an informal two-day meeting of EU defense ministers that began at the coastal resort of Vouliagmeni underscored the differences regarding support for America as it pushes for quick action against Iraq. British Defense Secretary Geoffrey Hoon did not attend and was replaced by the armed forces minister, Adam Ingram. Communist-led demonstrators held an anti-war protest outside the Defense Ministry on Mesogeion Avenue and more protests are scheduled for Athens and Thessaloniki today. «This agreement is a critical part of the linkage between NATO and the European Union – a critical part of the construction of the security and military capability to be exercised by the European Union where the alliance as a whole is not engaged. And, as such, it is a very visible articulation of the organizations coming together in the interest of greater security and stability in the Euro-Atlantic space,» Robertson said. «So this is one of the most important foundation stones of this huge project… It’s a very important day for NATO and for the EU, but much more for the people who rely on us to give a sense of trust and stability for the future.» Papandreou commented, «It is a great accomplishment which shows a new relationship between two very important organizations… for the security of this continent, I would say, and beyond.» Defense Minister Yiannos Papantoniou said that he and his colleagues were to discuss Iraq today. Yesterday they discussed the Euroforce and preparations for it. «In June, we, the Greek presidency, will be able to say the Euroforce is a reality, with full operational and functional capability,» Papantoniou said. Regarding Iraq, Greece agrees with France, Germany and others that UN inspections should be given more time.