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Richard North, 12/12/2012  


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BBC political editor Nick Robinson tells us that it is nearly a year since David Cameron went to Brussels and "found himself isolated in Europe at a summit determining the EU's future".

That is typical of the level of political commentary we get in this country – not that its much better elsewhere – which is why the media can never be taken as a serious player when it comes to understanding what it going in on EU politics.

But when it comes to the low-brow personality politics that dominate the British scene, Robinson is as good a guide as any, alongside Brogan and other dross who specialise more in the gossip than the reality of politics.

Both of these commentators are thus writing about the forthcoming Cameron speech, setting out policy on the EU, the one in which – it is rumoured - that he will offer the nation a referendum, and thereby seal the fate (or not) at the general election.

Robinson, though, remarks that – despite the importance of the speech - Cameron has still to fix a date let alone finalise the text of this long-promised speech, explaining that the content will "see him walking a political and diplomatic tightrope".

One reason for the agonising, we are told, has been what one source calls "getting the diplomacy right" i.e., ensuring that potential allies in Europe - the Germans, Dutch and the Swedes who have, so far, backed Britain's call for a freeze in the EU Budget - are clear that Mr Cameron is not capitulating to those who want Britain out of Europe.

Another problem, says Robinson, is what some ministers call "the Honda problem" - the risk that multinational companies put further investment in Britain on hold while they wait to see if the country will stay in or get out of Europe.

Given these and other complexities, it is a fair bet that Cameron really does not know which way to jump, which perhaps explains why he is describing his policy-making approach as like "tantric sex". "It will be even better when it does eventually come", he was heard to say.

But if such reticence afflicts the prime minister, who displays an alarming lack of knowledge of how the EU actually works, we get no doubts from Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's chief of staff from 1995-2007.

Powell, writing in the Financial Tines tells us we should "listen to the experts" – i.e., the Foreign Office mandarins. They know better than backbench Tory MPs what is negotiable and what is not. If the prime minister is to call a referendum in his speech, Powell says, the only real choice is between being fully in or out altogether. There is no mythical third way.

The interesting thing here is that the "fully in" option is no longer tenable, with Merkel forging ahead with a new treaty, so if Powell stick to his guns, the only option we have is to leave.

But, in painting such a stark picture, he – and possibly even Cameron himself – are relying on the status quo effect, where the majority of the British people would (albeit reluctantly) vote to remain in the EU if the only other option was to leave.

If this is the case, it explains why they must talk up the disadvantages of the EEA option, even if – Powell included – they are having to misrepresent the position.

Interestingly, Brogan plays this game as well. He blithely informs us that "those advocating a Norwegian solution" – free trade but without EU membership – "are countered by the harsh reality of what in Oslo they call 'government by fax' – instructions from Brussels to which there is no reply".

Sadly though, the "harsh reality" is that an awful lot of people do not know what they are talking about. There might once have been a time when political correspondents – and even politicians – knew how this country was actually governed, but it seems that those days are long gone.

Thus we are witnessing is not so much the "tantric approach" as good, old-fashioned mushroom management. And at the heart of darkness is Mr Cameron himself. Fortified by his own ignorance, the truth of the matter is that he does not really know what to do.

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