America's preparation for and launch of the war on Iraq have split the European Union's current (and prospective) member states into two camps. It is a deep division that sees on one side the governments, the UK government first and foremost, that have accepted meekly this flexing of American muscle, and on the other, those countries that, attempting to safeguard the shred of independence they still retain, have strongly opposed the action of the United States.

It is no coincidence that those most strongly opposed to the war have been France and Germany, supported in their stance by Belgium and Luxembourg (with the Netherlands adopting a more cautious wait-and-see attitude). This grouping of countries echoes, albeit in a partial and still somewhat indistinct way, that of Europe's original founder states. The only one of the Six missing from this line-up is Italy, whose government, despite public opinion in the country being unequivocally opposed to the conflict, has faithfully supported the American line.

Now that the war is under way, some have started to talk about repairing both the rift between the United States and Europe, and the damaged relations within the Union itself. The reality is that these fractures can truly be healed, in the long term, only by a determination not to accept compromises over the differences that led to their emergence in the first place. A patching up of relations would simply signify an explicit conforming to the American line on the part of governments that had, hitherto, contested it.

This does not, in any way, throw into question the traditional friendship of Europeans towards the American people. But it cannot be denied that the imbalance of power between the United States and the countries of Europe is so great and so obvious ­ even though, from a historical perspective the power of the United States is on the wane ­ that the reaching of any transatlantic agreement, and consequently any agreement within the EU, would be possible only at the price of the loss of the last scrap of dignity that Europe, thanks to the attitude of France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg, still retains. It is therefore to be hoped that there will be no such patching up of relations under the current circumstances, as this would serve only to confirm the common submission of Europe's divided nations to the colonial supremacy of the United States. What Europe desperately needs today is founders, not mediators.

Europe has entered a crucial period in its history, in which rapid and radical answers to the problem of sovereignty have to be found. Plans for a common foreign and security policy that, without eroding national sovereignty, goes no further than a rationalisation of arms production and the formation of a small rapid reaction force certainly cannot be said to fulfil this need. Neither can proposals like assigning the European Union a single seat on the UN Security Council. Clearly, if this kind of external representation were an expression of the Union in its present form (as opposed to the expression of a single European state), then this proposal would be entirely unrealisable; and even in the highly unlikely scenario of its being realised, it would be quite impossible for the EU representative, answerable to twenty-five heads of government and faced with the diametrically opposed positions of Great Britain and France, to give voice to any common European standpoint.

The present situation is extremely serious and needs to be tackled seriously, and not through verbal artifices, which serve only to disguise a lack of courage. It needs to be tackled in the full awareness that, if Europe is once more to count on the world stage, any design for its political unification must be viewed as a question not of legal formulae, but of power ­ a question that cannot be tackled and resolved in the framework of a twenty-five- or even a fifteen-member European Union, or indeed in any framework that includes the United Kingdom.

It can be tackled and resolved only in the framework of Europe's original founder members: those countries that share the strongest links, whose interests are most closely intertwined, whose integration goes back the furthest and in whose citizens the European ideals are most deep-rooted. It is up to these six countries (or to five of them, should Italy's government fail to alter radically its European policy) to take the initiative of founding an initial federal core, which all the other states will be free to accept or reject, but whose terms will be not be open to negotiation.

The absence of Italy from this framework would be a serious omission not only because the federal core would be denied the contribution of an important nation (both in terms of its wealth and the size of its population), but also in view of the avant-garde role that Italy has played in all the crucial stages of the process of European unification up to now, and that it could again play in the decisive stage the continent has reached today. That said, no government remains in office for ever, and the political coalition sustaining the present Italian government includes a number of genuinely pro-European members, while the whole of the country's opposition is, with the exception of an extreme fringe, pro-European.

Italy should therefore, if only with a view to the future, be involved in the process, through the establishment of meaningful dialogue between representatives of the governments and parties ready to take this initiative and the most farsighted section of Italy's political class. One thing is for certain: it would never be long before Italy joined an initial federal core.