A new dimension was added yesterday to the ongoing debate about the consequences of military action against Iraq when Chris Patten, the European Union's external relations commissioner, warned that the EU might not be willing to pick up the bills for reconstruction in Iraq if the use of force had not been sanctioned by the United Nations. This is not an empty threat. The EU - not the United States - is the world's biggest aid donor and it has taken a lead-role in the rebuilding of Afghanistan after the US–led campaign against the Taleban and al-Qaida.

Mr Patten made it clear that he was anticipating EU reaction rather than announcing any decision. But he came out clearly for the necessity of prior UN authority for any use of military force against Iraq, saying: “People may argue that the UN is not perfect. Doubtless it is not, but it's the only UN we've got.” The EU's influence has never been strong at the United Nations, mainly because it seldom speaks with a single voice on foreign policy. However, from the beginning of this year, the Security Council has four major EU countries among its fifteen members - Britain and France, with permanent status, and Germany and Spain occupying two of the rotating seats. Given Britain's closeness to the United States on so many issues this is unlikely to lead to a unified EU presence on the Council in the near future but the advantages of such unity in the longer term may at least become clearer.