European governments declared Friday that Moammar Gaddafi can no longer be considered the leader of Libya and must step down immediately, but they stopped short of formally recognizing the Libyan rebel movement or endorsing military action to support its armed struggle.

The cautious steps, at an emergency European Union summit, represented a setback for President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who had pushed for a bold stand that would put Europe more actively on the rebel side and encourage its ragtag fighters as they seek to beat back advancing counterattacks by Gaddafi’s military.

To some extent, Sarkozy was joined by Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain in demanding a muscular stand and support for military preparedness. The two leaders had sent a letter to their E.U. colleagues Thursday appealing for a “clear political signal” from the summit. What emerged with the most clarity, however, was that a majority of the 27-nation European group, although sympathetic to the rebellion, was uncertain what steps to take to help the fight against Gaddafi.

After a day-long debate, the European leaders decided to qualify the rebel movement as a “political interlocutor” in Libya that they “welcome and encourage” in the battles under way in several Libyan cities. This fell well short of Sarkozy’s proposal that the European Union join France in recognizing the Benghazi-based Libyan National Council as the country’s legitimate representative.

The Europeans also endorsed contingency planning for “all necessary options,” including the military options under study by NATO allies. But they declined to specify what actions they favored and underlined that any such moves would have to be shown to be necessary, have a legal basis and be endorsed by regional governments.

The continent’s caution was similar to that displayed by the Obama administration in Washington. In fact, its language on the conditions for military action was taken from White House statements and NATO deliberations on the other side of Brussels.

On both sides of the Atlantic, leaders were waiting to see what comes of an Arab League meeting Saturday in Cairo and consultations underway at U.N. headquarters in New York for a possible Security Council resolution.

France has advocated robust planning for military operations, if necessary and if the Security Council approves. Sarkozy, explaining the E.U. stand, said what he and the other leaders have in mind as the trigger for any military operation is large-scale use of Gadaffi’s military aircraft against civilian populations.

“What would people have said if Europe, even before thinking it over, had renounced all kinds of military action in Libya?” he asked.

In more than three weeks of fighting, Gaddafi’s air force has mounted repeated attacks against rebel forces and strategic targets such as ammunition dumps or oil facilities. But no massive strikes have been reported so far against civilians.

A no-fly zone, one of the proposals most discussed, is not a practical solution because of its complexity in a large, desert country, Sarkozy said. And, he added, NATO is not the right group to consider solutions to the Libyan crisis because it is a military organization widely untrusted in the Arab world.

Several nations have hesitated at the prospect of military action. Russia and China, both permanent Security Council members with veto power, have indicated they would find it hard to support any foreign military intervention in Libya’s crisis.

Sarkozy, derided as impulsive by his critics and praised as decisive by his backers, irritated European allies Thursday by deciding that France would recognize the rebel movement as the country’s legitimate representative. He also publicly urged that Europe consider bombing raids against selected military targets, such as air bases, if civilians were subjected to massacres.

But he and Cameron explained that, whatever military intervention might eventually be decided, it must have backing from the Security Council and regional governments in the Arab League. Given the reluctance from Russia and China, that seemed to leave prospects dim for any of the proposals to move from the news conference to the battlefield.

“The safety of the people must be ensured by all necessary means,” the leaders said in a communique that emphasized the caution. “The European Council expresses its deep concern about attacks against civilians, including from the air. In order to protect the civilian population, member states will examine all necessary options, provided there is a demonstrable need, a clear legal basis and support from the region.”

The German leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel, said she was surprised by Sarkozy’s decision to recognize the rebel movement, indicating he should have waited for Friday’s summit and proposed it to his European partners. As for the proposals for military action, she said the West should be careful not to start something it could not finish.

Foreign Minister Franco Frattini of Italy voiced similar sentiments, and his Luxembourg counterpart, Jean Asselborn, warned Sarkozy against any “theatrical gesture” at the summit.

Fearing a massive influx of immigrants, the European leaders also called on neighboring countries, such as Tunisia and Egypt, to allow creation of safe zones to handle those fleeing Libya. The United Nations has estimated that 250,000 people have fled the battle zones since mid-February, arousing fears of a wave of illegal immigration across the Mediterranean.

With that in mind, the leaders also authorized additional funding and more personnel for Frontex, the multinational European border patrol force.