I have just returned from the first Referendum Planning Group (RPG) workshop. This was largely a very enjoyable event and undoubtedly a very informative one. Had the formal proceedings wrapped up 20 minutes earlier I am sure that I would have left the meeting feeling even more enthusiastic than I do now.
Following a brief but extremely apposite introduction by Niall Warry, in which he emphasised the importance of communicating a clear and coherent message to the “undecideds”—the middle-of-the-road voters whom the “leave”campaign will need to convince—without “banging on” about immigration, regulation or cost, Dr Richard North started the day by addressing the “unfashionable” subject of intellectual endeavour, emphasising the fact that the referendum campaign will be a battle to win hearts and minds.
Outlining the “Grand Strategy” for the campaign to his wannabe Lieutenants, with reference to Sun Tzu and The Art of War, General North first asserted the need to know your enemy. Then he repeated the point. This is essential if you hope to parry their main thrust and mount an effective counter-attack. “It is the enemies’ intention that counts because it is the enemy that we have to defeat,” he remarked.
To that end, the “enemy” is not the opposition campaign, which Dr North termed a “distraction”, but the British government—in the guise of Mr Cameron—the European Commission and the associated institutions of the European Union—in the guise of Mr Junker.
To defeat the identified enemy, the “leave” campaign will need to cleave to a core set of strategic principles. Foremost amongst these: engage the real enemy—Cameron and what he represents—without getting “bogged down in boring, facile, tedious” discussions that “waste energy” and “distract from the real issue”. There will, of course, be all sorts of campaigners making all sorts of “noise”; there is no need to add to the cacophony. Targeted skirmishes are worthwhile, but endless complaints about the precise curvature of bent bananas is not.
What Dr North termed our “moronic media” (definitely the title of a future blog post) has two principle concerns when commenting on issues that relate to the EU—firstly, planting a British flag on it, and secondly, turning the issue into a clash of personalities. Nuance, complexity and detail are invariably lost on these people and “eurosceptics who rely upon the British press will be universally misinformed”. Slightly later in the talk, Dr North commented on the fact that the main BBC news bulletin on the day of Jean-Claude Junker’s “State of the Union” address referred to the event as a “statement on immigration”.
Expanding upon the military metaphor, Dr North told us that “the first duty of any general is to find out what is happening on the other side of the hill”. We need to know and understand as much as possible about the intentions, plans and ambitions of the EU—a notoriously difficult task; Brussels-watching puts even Kremlinology in the shade—thereby necessitating the emphasis on “intelligence-led” campaigning.
This brought us onto the most interesting part of the talk: “the playbook”. Cameron’s “renegotiation” is no longer. The focus on Freedom of Movement and the aim of agreeing a “mini treaty” via the “simplified procedure” outlined in Article 48 of the Lisbon Treaty has been abandoned. Just as the “leave” campaign is not able to set the agenda, “Cameron [himself] is not in control of the timetable”.
The place where we need to look for clues (if not outright declarations of intent) is at the Five Presidents Report, published in June 2015, which is itself born of the Spinelli/Bertelsmann: A Fundamental Law of the European Union document, published in January 2013. As Dr North noted, the roots of both documents reach back still further into the ever-so-long EU past.
This puts us on course for the announcement of a new treaty some time in late 2017, just in time for Mr Cameron’s referendum. Under this scenario, Cameron will be denied his “Heston moment”—a reference to Neville Chamberlain stood at Heston Airport, declaring “peace in our time” in 1938—he will instead have to sell the promise of a “special relationship” for Britain in the next treaty. The Spinelli/Bertelsmann document refers to “core Europe” or Kerneuropa, built around the eurozone, and the outerzone.
This will be a major challenge for Cameron because this is precisely the “two-speed Europe” that British governments have decried in the past and which Cameron has personally argued against becoming part of on the basis of retaining a seat at what he calls the “top table”. This provides us with our opening: as Owen Paterson has previously explained, there is no “status quo”, “the EU is leaving us”. So, we either join the euro, or we accept our status as “second-class citizens” of a “second-class country”.
Those are our options, unless we choose to leave the EU, in which case a whole world of new possibilities is conceivable. Our role now is to promote alternatives that are “credible, workable and safe”. With that, Dr North opened the floor to questions, and so concluded the first morning session. Reports of the subsequent sessions and the intelligence to be gleaned from those shall follow over the next few days.