Richard North, 16/01/2016  

In the New Year's press conference in Brussels yesterday Jean-Claude Juncker referred to the coming European Council meeting, scheduled for 18-19 February, and the chances of getting a deal on Mr Cameron's "renegotiation" package.

Throughout his long speech – lasting 47 minutes – he spoke mainly in French, with a relay of interpreters clearly enunciating his words. But, just over 40 minutes in, when it came to the "UK question", he switched to English and his interpreters dropped out. And, while Mr Juncker's English is very good, there are some slight discontinuities and sometimes it is a little difficult to make out exactly what he said.

Needless to say, the media have just reported the highlights, a very few of the words he spoke in the two minutes of so he devoted to the subject, which he started by saying that the negotiations, or "talks" were entering a "delicate period".

Importantly, in a detail that will be missed by most journalists, and many pundits, Juncker reminded his audience that the Commission was not a partner in the talks. They were, he said, "a matter for the States. The Member States are in direct and indirect talks with the British", he added.

As for the Commission, it was "working hard" on the issue was a "big facilitator". We are, Juncker said, "issuing ideas. We are trying to inspire processes. We are making suggestions. And we are shipping all this material, all that stuff to those who are more immediately, in fact finally in charge".

Juncker then went on to say that, "The issues put on the table by the British PM are all difficult issues". Addressing the journalists in quite a firm tone, he declared: "Don't think that there is one issue that would be particularly difficult".

Although he conceded that the welfare system issue was problematical, no one should run away with the idea that all the other "baskets" would be less important. "They aren't", he said. "Even 'ever closer union', the role of national parliaments, the 'ins' and 'outs' in the framework of the euro system, are very, very difficult issues".

"We have to work hard", the Commission President said, to come to agreements. "I'm not optimistic, not pessimistic", he added. "I know that we have to deliver. The Commission is dong what the Commission can do. I'm quite sure that we'll have a deal".

Much of that last paragraph is what the media have published, but not much else, other than Juncker's concluding remarks, where he observed that his deal would not be a "compromise" but a "solution". It would not be, he said "a big compromise", but it would be "a permanent solution – in February".

After the formal speech, there were a question, led by a journalist from the Wall Street Journal. She asked: "What makes you so confident there will be a deal in February?" And to this Juncker responded with a Sphinx-like smile. "My knowledge is allowing me to do that", he said.

On this, of course, we have absolutely no means of knowing whether we are being played. And, since Mr Juncker, as he has so carefully pointed out, is not himself responsible for the negotiations – these being a matter for the European Council – he can always distance himself from any last-minute "breakdown" of the talks.

Should that instance arise, Mr Juncker will argue, like any skilled politician, that his statement was true at the time when he made it. But, if the circumstances change between now and the European Council, that cannot be held against him.

Nevertheless, the legacy media have piled in, including the Mail, taking this as confirmation that Mr Cameron will bee seeking a June or early July referendum, with this whole issue building up a momentum which is going lead to a colossal anti-climax if nothing final is delivered.

One assumes that Mr Cameron is still playing the long game, in which case there will be a last-minute snag, which will build into a crisis and then a dramatic collapse of the talks. This is a plausible scenario, which means that the February European Council will be more than usually significant in providing clues as to the referendum timescale.

The one great imponderable is the prospects for a new treaty, with the process starting in early 2018, if the Five Presidents' report is to be taken as a guide. It is that which will enable Mr Cameron to give more or less firm undertakings on a "British model", which will underpin his case for remaining in the EU.

Here, the interesting thing is the mood music – or the lack of it. In the European Parliament, the great guru of the Constitutional Affairs Committee, Elmar Brok, is declaring in a report: a necessary revision of the Treaties does not seem likely in the short-term ...", while an article in Die Welt is bemoaning the lack of agreement between Merkel and Hollande over the shape of a kern Europa.

As you might imagine, I have been watching like a hawk for signs of a treaty in the making. And as we move into the New Year, what is glaringly absent is any of the "chatter" that one might expect that accompanies this process.

If one adds my piece the other day, where I note that Duff seems to be abandoning his own proposal for "associate membership", and we get a sense that the "dog" isn't barking - it isn't even whining to go out. If there is a treaty in the making, it is one of the best-kept secrets in the entire history of the Communities.

All these are slender enough clues, but they clues none the less – enough for us to ask whether the "colleagues" are about to bottle out and delay yet again a new treaty.

If this is the case, this leaves Mr Cameron high and dry. When time begins to run out in 2017, he will have nothing bankable - nothing at all. He will be going to the electorate with his hands empty, nothing more than the few fragile concessions that he is able to pick up at the February Council, if indeed a "solution" is agreed. This is not a winning hand. In fact, Mr Cameron is poised to lose.

On that basis, as I hint in my recent piece, this is the one thing that might prompt our dearly beloved Prime Minister to cut and run, risking the wrath of the Electoral Commission, bouncing us into a referendum before the leavers are ready and organised. On that basis, late June early July becomes a possibility – albeit a huge risk, and a decision that could be overturned by the courts.

Mr Cameron's problem, though, is that he has an incredibly weak hand. Having promised a treaty, he will not only be unable to deliver, he will not even be able to offer a firm timetable or any commitments as to the outcome.

His only real weapon would be the disarray within the "leavers", expecting that we would not have time to organise an effective campaign, blitzing us with propaganda and relying on the status quo effect - turning the lack of a treaty to what little advantage he can gain from it. He can, in fact, rely on the status quo, if there is going to be no new treaty, and even rely on the "treaty lock" to enforce the status quo.

If this is the case, then there is an outside chance that the media expectations of an early referendum could prove correct. But that is not to say that they have called it right. This is more like a stopped clock being right twice a day.

Through the period since his Bloomberg speech, Mr Cameron has been ringing the changes, between playing it long and playing it short. At this particular juncture, the balance of advantage could just be favouring the short game, depending on the outcome of the next few weeks.

Should he blow the whistle, I think a few carefully crafted panic buttons might need to be pressed – the big, red plastic ones with "PANIC" printed on them. In my experience, though, these tend not to be connected to anything. Be that as it may though we could, as they say, have a "situation" on our hands.

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