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Europe

Europe prepares to fight to keep Britain in the EU

As if they did not have enough to deal with, EU leaders now have to address the British prime minister's reform plans ahead of a "Brexit" referendum. Barbara Wesel reports from Brussels.

The topic could take away many government leaders' appetites - Britain's list of reforms will be broadly discussed with all member states at dinner. Prime Minister David Cameron urgently needs some seemingly radical reforms in his country's relations with the EU so he can justify his "yes" campaign before the upcoming referendum. But even if they were willing to help, other European leaders cannot find a quick-fix solution to his problems. Decisions will only be made at the next summit in February 2016 at the earliest.

Cameron's predicament

The anti-European press in Great Britain has already started bashing Cameron. The "Sun" wrote that the prime minister was "pathetic" and "gutless" while the "Daily Mail" demanded he "show some steel" as reform attempts have "descended into farce."

Meanwhile, the "Daily Express" predicted that Cameron is "heading for humiliation" as one can hear the "enfeebled rhetoric of compromise and surrender."

The "Guardian" criticized Cameron for his demand to restrict migrant workers' access to benefits, saying, "It was simply a stupid idea, from the ramshackle mind at the top of a disheveled government." The EU opponents in his own party are backstabbing him anyway as they want much more, including the restoration of political powers and the sovereignty ceded to Brussels.

EU-Gipfel / Brüssel

There could be some long nights in store for EU leaders

What does the British prime minister want?

Most of David Cameron's reform proposals are actually feasible. The EU can find formulas to promise more competitiveness and it can provide better protection from eurozone decisions for non-eurozone countries. Even greater say for national parliaments can be provided for.

Last but not least, the EU could relieve the British of the "ever closer union" mission in the EU treaties. All these changes can be implemented by making some legal contortions. Actually, anything can be done if it does not require amendments to the EU treaties. Treaties will not be amended: that is the consensus.

How much Europe does he want for his country?

The crucial point is Cameron's demand to restrict migrant workers' access to British social benefits in their first four years of residency. That violates anti-discriminatory laws, and several Eastern European countries have already informed Cameron that they do not agree with him.

An EU Commission proposal may be able to address the issue: it provides for reform proposals on the rights of EU citizens in other member states and apparently states a time limit, albeit only up to six months. It is still not clear whether that would be enough for Cameron.

The political will is great

"We want to reach an agreement with which the British government can successfully campaign in the forthcoming referendum to remain in the European Union," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel in her speech to the German parliament in Berlin. However, she added, the principles of free movement and non-discrimination must not be questioned.

The German government is still keen on keeping Britain in the European Union and would be extremely helpful in supporting this goal. In the end, Cameron should strike a deal that he and the EU as whole can live with. But apparently not enough progress has been made to be able to determine details.

David McAllister, a German member of European Parliament (MEP), has confirmed that all the other 27 members have the political will to keep Britain in the EU. Even most Britons feel that, "Where there's a will, there's a way," says the MEP, who serves as a behind-the-scenes liaison between London and Berlin.

Brüssel EU-Gipfel Merkel Cameron

"Where there's a will, there's a way," or so they say

He feels that legal experts in Brussels should be creative under these circumstances. Yet McAllister does see difficulties ahead when it comes to curbing social benefits. "You have to walk a fine line between more flexibility and an à la carte Europe, which is not feasible," he concludes.

Brexit can be prevented

Many of Cameron's problems have arisen from a domestic debate in Britain, in which the EU cannot help him anyway, says Fabian Zuleeg of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels. He also finds the tight time plan especially problematic. The key question of restrictions on EU workers is part of the principle of freedom of movement within Europe. Thus, finding a solution will prove to be legally and politically difficult, said the researcher. Or perhaps the British will change their social legislation for its own citizens.

Whatever the outcome in Brussels, euro-skeptics in Britain will try to undermine any of Cameron's achievements, says Zuleeg. Yet many countries have shown good will, especially the Scandinavian ones. Much will depend on the presentation of the package at the end.

"It has to look so important that it appears as a success in British public opinion," says Zuleeg. Cameron must not only remind the euro-skeptics in his own party that anyone who forces Britain out of the EU endangers the country's future. He also has to address Scottish issues too, as the SNP has already announced that, in the case of a Brexit, it would hold a new referendum to secede from London. Much is at stake for all involved.

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