Richard North, 16/02/2016  

So the clock ticks towards Thursday and the European Council, which could also at some time reconstitute itself as an intergovernmental meeting, thus qualifying as a "summit". And, as the hours pass, we watch for the clues which will populate the theatre that our masters have so laboriously constructed, in the hope of divining the outcome of this little drama.

One of those clues - crumbs from the rich man's table - is Mr Cameron's "last minute" visit to Paris to see François Hollande. This, we are being led to believe was triggered by French reservations on the euro element of the so-called "deal", which supposedly safeguards banks in the City of London.

On this, there can be no question that there is a problem brewing. Prime Minister Manuel Valls has said that the EU did not need an additional crisis brought on by Britain's outlook on the bloc, taking a stern Gallic view by stating that Britain could not "dictate its conditions" to the EU.

Currently, France has expressed doubts about the wording of the proposal to give London a voice in decisions on the euro and disagreements over the text could be a deal-breaker.

Looking at this dispassionately, though, we have a British Prime Minister rushing to meet a French President over a non-deal, that needs either a bit of creative tension to make it look more plausible, or a cast-iron alibi to cover its planned rejection.

Either or these scenarios fit with the reports coming from the meeting – the true nature of which we maybe will never know. But the take-home line is that Mr Cameron failed to win over the French President. The meeting is said to have been "constructive" but "differences remain".

That certainly gives Mr Cameron his alibi, if he needs it, but it also provides the basis for an "overcoming the monster" narrative, paving the way for a close-fought victory on Thursday or Friday. Either way, the meeting has been a useful prelude, to whatever it is that the pair have in mind.

Tilting it in the direction of a Cameron victory is a report from the Guardian which has an anonymous European commissioner declaring that, "There is quite a willingness to accommodate the British demands. Britain’s leaving would be a tragedy".

But, for every up, there is a down. For every silver lining, there has to be a cloud. The juridical and legislative aspects of Mr Cameron's "package", we are told, are causing more than a few hiccups.

Several Member States, for instance, are said to be unhappy about the perceived belittling of the notion of "ever closer union". There is no equivocation on this: any change will have to be codified by eventual treaty change, but there is no final agreement yet to amend the EU treaties.

To that effect, Mr Cameron really does need some form of commitment from the "colleagues" that there is a treaty change on the stocks. The fiction of him lodging an "international agreement" with the UN and calling it a treaty really isn't going to cut it. A genuine, copper-bottomed EU Treaty has to be on the horizon – and there's no sign of one yet.

Of more immediate significance, though, might be Mr Cameron's treatment of the European Parliament. He was due today to address the conference of presidents – all the leaders of the political groups in the EP. But at short notice he cancelled, and instead is to meet privately a few senior parliament figures.

It is not hard to see this sudden change of plan as a snub to an already hyper-sensitive Parliament – one what had wanted him to address MEPs in their chamber and reluctantly settling for the meeting with the conference as a second-best. From Cameron to walk away from that is perhaps to signal that he does not need the Parliament, and is not prepared to expend the time on them that the MEPs crave.

Yet, for important elements of his "package", Mr Cameron will need Parliamentary approval, so this action could be telling us that there is no immediate expectation of a deal, such as would then need elements to be presented for approval.

Since, eventually, Mr Cameron will still need the European Parliament, this further suggests that he is looking to play the long game.

And, right on cue, we have Spiegel Online offering its own commentary on the issues under the headline, "the delusion of a great Europe". In this, Henrik Müller, professor of economic journalism at the University of Dortmund, suggests that the answer to all this messing around is a "radical step".

It is obvious, he writes, that the EU, as it currently stands, cannot go on forever. And the appeasement of the British is not going to solve the underlying problems.

If the EU is not to fall apart, Müller asserts that it will have to be split. There will be the inner "hard" core of France, Germany and the Benelux countries, welded together into a genuine federal community. It will have everything that goes with it: parliament, government, currency, army.

That then leaves the outer ring. In Müller's scenario, this would be something not much more than a single market, including competition authorities, a loose association in which the UK could find a place.

That brings us back almost to where we started. There is something missing from Mr Cameron's line up, and in the countdown to this fateful European Council, we are still none the wiser as to what he really has in mind.

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