Mary Ellen Synon was in London today, talking to a well-attended Bruges Group conference, with a speech which had the note-takers scribbling furiously.
What attracted our interest was her view – as an observer of Brussels at close hand – that David Cameron’s Chatham House speech on 10 November “was a trick”. It was designed to divert attention from his real intentions, and it has largely succeeded.
Since the speech, many leave campaigners have been wasting their time (and ours) in complaining that the so-called demands were “thin gruel”. But whether they are thin or not is irrelevant. The demands (which aren’t actually demands anyway) are irrelevant.
Says ME, the only purpose of Mr Cameron’s “demands” was to act as camouflage for the one line in the speech that actually mattered. That one line, she says, was not a demand. “It was a capitulation”.
As we observed at the time tough, and ME told her audience, the Westminster reporters covering the speech, and most every MP, didn’t notice the line tucked in after 1,800 words of diversion. This was it: “We need a British model of membership that works for Britain and for any other non-Euro countries”.
The point that ME so ably makes is that Mr Cameron was speaking in code – which is why the hacks missed it. For those who know the code, for those that have been following this dance in Brussels for years, Mr Cameron, in seventeen words, sent a signal to Brussels.
When decoded, it conveys that the Prime Minister intended Britain to be locked into the EU in exactly the way the EU federalists have been planning since 2006. In other words, Mr Cameron was signalling he was ready to collaborate with the euro-federalists to lead Britain into the bondage of associate membership.
Observers who spend their lives in the Westminster bubble did not grasp that this was the one significant line of the speech. But as the line was written in Brussels code, one should not be too surprised they didn’t grasp its importance. They live in Britain. They don’t speak the euro-language, they don’t know the Brussels code. They don’t know the dance steps.
In the next stage of the dance, as Downing Street becomes more open about admitting associate membership is the Prime Minister’s intention, background briefings will portray associate membership as Mr Cameron’s “big new idea”.
But, says ME, the idea is not big as much as it is dishonest. It is certainly not new, having been hanging around Brussels for ten years. And it is not Mr Cameron’s. We’ve been hearing from federalists in Brussels all the way back to Andrew Duff ten years ago when he proposed the idea in 2006 as a way of reviving the EU Constitution after it had been rejected by voters.
Nobody before or since has defined what associate membership would be – other than it would tie a member state into continued membership of the supranational political union. The vagueness is deliberate. Leaving the notion undefined creates a blank screen onto which can be projected whatever image of a new EU referendum voters can be persuaded to buy.
And image will, of course, be transitory. But Mr Cameron, with assistance from his collaborators in Brussels, only needs to keep the light on until the referendum. Then the cast iron guarantees can dissolve. The crucial part is that – as Duff said, “Whatever it contains … [it] has to look better than it really is”.
That is what the idea of associate membership is for. It is a package whose contents will not be known until after the British voters buy it. At which point it will be too late.
Nevertheless, during the summer some Westminster hacks claimed to have stumbled onto a story that – in the words of the Sunday Times political editor – Downing Street “is drawing up a secret blueprint” to win the European referendum by “re-branding” Britain’s membership.
Says ME, though, this “re-branding” is not a secret in Brussels. It has been known about for years. But when the Prime Minister laid down a false trail for the Westminster hack-pack, they duly followed it.
All this is so wearily predictable. For months before the Chatham House speech, Downing Street had briefed journalists that the Prime Minister would soon announce his “demands” for renegotiations in a major speech. Thus, when Mr Cameron stepped up to the microphone at Chatham House, the pack was already primed to hear what Mr Cameron wanted them to hear.
Inevitably, they reported the list of “demands” he made – except that he didn’t make any demands. In actuality, the Prime Minister did not use the word “demand” at all, except in one line which had nothing to do with negotiations.
What followed was equally predictable. The Tory eurosceptics, relying largely on the reports of the speech, rather than the speech itself, and hearing the BBC coverage, “complained that the demands were too slight”.
However, now that the message has been sent to Brussels, Jean-Claude Juncker has at last replied. Last Wednesday, he told a meeting in Brussels that the European Union will have to review its framework to allow some countries to do everything together and others to be less involved. In short, associate membership.
Or as Mr Juncker put it, the EU “is a family. Over time, one needs to give them [the children] the possibility to find their place on an orbit that better suits their sense of temperature. But Brexit will not happen”.
The real meaning of that signal to Mr Cameron was: “Message received. Brexit will not happen”. And none of this is coincidence, says ME. Mr Cameron had already sent out a coded message on associate membership back as far as January 2013, in his Bloomberg speech.
It was then that he said: “We believe in a flexible union of free member states who share treaties and institutions and pursue together the ideal of co-operation”.
Perhaps we can send a comforting word to Mary Ellen. That idea of a flexible friend will, perhaps, last no longer than the once famous credit card which claimed so much. Flexibility is a poor substitute for departure.
Richard A.E. North is a blogger and author. He is the co-author, along with Christopher Booker, of The Great Deception, a comprehensive history of the European Union and Britain’s relationship with it. His writes the UK’s most influential Brexit campaign blog EUReferendum and co-authored Flexcit, a comprehensive exit plan. Follow him on Twitter: @RichardAENorth
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty